‘Smart City’ of Edmonton wins $400k gift from IBM

Edmonton is the first Canadian city to make IBM Corp.’s Smarter Cities Challenge list, winning recognition for its open data initiative and commitment to transportation infrastructure.

The Albertan city is one of just 24 worldwide to be awarded by Big Blue for innovative use of information technology to benefit its citizens and businesses. Edmonton will get the benefit of eight to 12 IBM consultants working full-time for three weeks on their IT initiative, a service valued at $400,000.

Edmonton’s open data initiative, launched January 2010, has literally put its transit schedule in the hands of any citizen with a screen connected to the Internet. Residents can send a text message to the nearest bus stop to see when the next bus is pulling up, or peruse the transit schedule using a smartphone app. The city also pushes its transit data to Google using Google Transit Feed Specification, meaning residents can route their bus or light rail trip using Google Maps.

So it made sense that Edmonton highlight transportation infrastructure in its proposal to IBM, says Chris Moore, CIO of the City of Edmonton.

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“We’re really looking to how people can move from one place to another, in the most effective way with the lowest carbon footprint,” he says. “The information is going to be more accessible, more available.”

Small businesses are affected by decisions the city makes on whether parking spaces are made available on the street, he says. Or a company interesting in renting out billboard space might be interested to know what the traffic flow is at a typical intersection.

“Until someone makes an app that utilizes it, you don’t visualize the possibilities,” Moore says.

Edmonton is capturing data related to cars on its roadways in a number of ways, the CIO says. It has both fixed and mobile traffic counting devices, including cameras that can distinguish between vehicle, pedestrian and cyclist traffic. The city has used this data internally so far, and shared it with the public when requested, but now will seek a way to push out the intelligence from that data for wider use.

IBM selected Edmonton because out of more than 200 applications, very few were focused on a big picture view of transportation infrastructure, says David Robitaille, director of corporate citizenship and corporate affairs with IBM Canada. It also was impressed with the city’s commitment to open data.

“We’re in a place and time where large civic organizations are generating a lot of data but they don’t know what to do with it,” he says. “They’re being overwhelmed by a sheer amount of data.”

Applying business intelligence software can help make sense of that data, Robitaille says. Edmonton is no stranger to doing this sort of analysis, as its police department uses IBM business analytics software to spot crime trends and do real-time reporting. Using a similar approach to transportation infrastructure could benefit the businesses based in Edmonton.

“If I’m manufacturing product there and I need to get it out to my customer, the better the system moves, the more effective my supply chain will be,” he says.

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Traffic congestion is the bane of many commuters in Canadian cities. Rush hour grid lock costs Canada’s nine largest cities $4 billion in lost productivity a year, according to Transport Canada.

For Edmonton blogger and software developer Mack Male, cutting out his two hours of daily commute time by a move downtown to be closer to his office at Questionmark Computing Ltd. has meant a huge boost to his quality of life. He’d like other residents in Edmonton to reap similar benefits from a shorter commute.

“If we can use some of these technologies to make the transportation choice a little bit easier, that’s invaluable,” he says. “We’re a car city. There’s a lot of people that drive and we’d like to see that change.”

Male spoke with IBM when the firm evaluated Edmonton as a candidate for its Smart Cities initiative. He assured them that beyond city hall, the city’s residents would be interested in taking part in anything that could help them spend less time in their cars.

Other cities honoured by IBM as 2011 recipients include New Orleans, Philadelphia, Delhi, Helsinki, Glasgow, and Bucharest. IBM plans to name 100 cities around the world to its list of Smart Cities – so far it has named 27. This is the first year of a three-year program, Robitaille says.

How could your city find its way to the list next year?

“It’s really about understanding what you have in terms of available data already, and the core challenges you’ve got as a city that data can help to sovle,” Robitaille advises. “Put that into a compelling and interesting business case.”

Another challenge is to be concise, as IBM accepts only two-page applications.

Brian Jackson is a Senior Writer at ITBusiness.ca. Follow him on Twitter, read his blog, and check out the IT Business Facebook Page.

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