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How IBM is sharing big data to improve European cities

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Harry Van DorenmalenHarry van Dorenmalen, the Chairman of IBM Europe, talks to Hot Topics’ David Pringle about how to put big data to work, smart city leadership, Europe’s competitiveness and the need for large companies to open up.

Although IBM is one of the world’s largest and most respected technology companies, Harry van Dorenmalen rarely mentions software and hardware. Instead, the Chairman of IBM Europe tends to talk about people and how they deal with big data. “Creative people who have an understanding of visualisation, artists, if you will. They are getting even more important in our company,” he says.  “I don’t need to explain to the client that we can run the infrastructure, but I need to help the client visualise how we can impact their customers.”IBM big data

There is widespread agreement that big data – the vast amount of data being collected by information and communications technology (ICT) – could be a major engine of socio-economic growth. But van Dorenmalen contends that will only happen if data is opened up and presented to people in ways they can understand and use.

One of the most discussed applications of big data is making cities smarter, better places to live. At the vanguard of the smart city movement, IBM is working with scores of mayors and officials around the world to use ICT to tackle traffic congestion, pollution, crime, spiralling energy costs and other scourges of urban living. In IBM’s experience, citizen engagement is a key factor in determining the success of such initiatives.  “Cities need to use their army of civilians, they have a major role to play,” van Dorenmalen advises. “We need to make greater use of social networking…At IBM we are starting to use connections big time now…no more emails. It is now about connections…whatever I type, everybody sees.”

Learning from Rio and Amsterdam

Van Dorenmalen describes how strong leaders in Amsterdam, Helsinki, London, Rio de Janerio and other cities are pushing the development of smart city services that use big data sourced from infrastructure, appliances and, crucially, people, to improve transport, increase safety and develop life-enriching services.  “Leadership is important, don’t under-estimate it,” he says. “In Rio, it originally started with flooding: That was the trigger. The mayor said: I need to do something here,” Now Rio has installed an early warning system of sensors, identifying where mud slides are likely to occur, alerting the city’s medical services, police force and transport authorities.

Whereas many smart city initiatives have focused on one area, such as transport, security or waste collection, Rio’s mayor is aiming to capture and share relevant data across all of its services. “In the town hall, there is a floor that is a computing centre with lots of screens,” says van Dorenmalen. “It is like something out of Skyfall with James Bond.” IBM says this integrated operations centre has helped to lower emergency response times in Rio by 30%.

Some European cities are also pushing the envelope. Van Dorenmalen’s base, Amsterdam, won an award at the World Smart Cities Forum in Barcelona 2012 for a programme that makes transport data openly available to app developers. “In Amsterdam, we have defined about 600 data files that we would like to open up,” says van Dorenmalen. “We have 35 to 40 smart city projects defined on top of the data and our final challenge is to give civilians more understanding and use of these facilities…that is the trick.”

In Amsterdam, the smart city programme is championed by a vocal mayor and coordinated by a board that meets regularly.  “You need to have a clear plan that people understand and people buy into,” says van Dorenmalen. “You need to use technology in the right way and use talent as an army.”

Van Dorenmalen’s home town, which was reclaimed from the sea north of Amsterdam, has mobilised its citizens to use technology. “The mayor where I live has opened a web site where civilians can report when something is wrong in a certain part of the city. She is not paying these people, but each week there are 400 responses,” he says. “That is free information.”

Time to open up to big data

If it is to remain competitive on the world stage, Europe and its people are going to need be in the vanguard of the big data revolution. The region is saddled with an aging population, high energy costs and high labour costs. But van Dorenmalen isn’t fazed by such challenges. “I tour around the world and, to be honest, I am pretty positive about Europe,” he says. “Why? Because all of the pieces are there. The only thing that Europe needs to do is to co-operate better.”

Europe’s countries and cities need to work much more closely together, according to van Dorenmalen. “If we can get this up and running, we could be the first geography in the world again,” he says. “I am 31 years in IBM…what I learnt in IBM, is the more you work in silos, it is missing something. The moment we start integrating, it is working again…this model is influencing me, when I look to Europe.”

In a similar vein, van Dorenmalen argues that companies also need to open up and share more data with each other, with consumers and with public bodies. “The companies that want to survive, they know to do that,” he says. “IBM has developed Watson for cognitive computing. We are giving away co-licenses to start-ups because we realise that we need the energy and creative thinking of these youngsters to get our products better.”

The degree to which companies open up reflects their level of confidence, van Dorenmalen suggests. “Companies that feel more confident, they do that. But other companies that are not so ready for the future, they go for protection,” he says. Van Dorenmalen echoes the view of his compatriot, European Commission Vice President Neelie Kroes that European companies’ need to shift their mindset from data protection to data sharing. “It’s attitude thing, a confidence thing and a leadership thing,” he says. “If I give, I get more back and I prosper.”

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