Smarter All The Time

on June 06, 2011 at 9:00 AM

How much data is too much data?

Utilities and cities are struggling, alongside private companies, to find effective ways to filter and organize, at speed and with efficiency, the enormous amounts of data new communication devices throughout the energy origination, production and delivery systems emit. IBM may have found a way to solve the problem.

“All cities are made up of a complex set of systems that are all inextricably linked,” said general manager for Global Public Sector at IBM Anne Altman.

The “intelligently instrumented environment” has created enormous opportunities to access information about operations and respond quickly to problems, IBM vice president of availability and business services Chris O’Connor told Breaking Energy, but the same complex environment also spawns enormous challenges.

Through its consulting arm, the technology giant noticed several years ago that problems were coalescing and multiplying around cities, where enormous population shifts to urbanized areas in developing countries and aging infrastructure in developed economies both contributed to an increased inability to even manage information flow, data monitoring, prediction or analysis.

IBM is accustomed to handling data flow and sorting challenges in a number of industries, but a new effort, the Intelligent Operations Center for Smarter Cities, announced today, builds on existing capabilities at the firm in entirely different ways.

The new IBM unit “recognizes the behavior of the city as a whole, thus providing more coordinated decision-making based on deep insights into how each city system will react to a given situation,” Altman said in announcing the new Center.

IBM has built systems that manage data stemming from electricity meters and other energy infrastructure in cities, as well as broader data, into a single control capability designed to optimize both savings and sustainability efforts, “operationalize” otherwise raw data, and enhance communication between different municipal agencies.

“Through a single operations center, cities will be able to: (1) Accurately gather digital information about physical city systems, including transportation, water, buildings and public safety; (2) Use business analytics to analyze real-time information to better model and predict outcomes,” IBM said in its announcement of the Center.

The new tools IBM is offering are scenario-based, and intended to limit access and analysis of data to the most relevant for each event rather than overload human operators dealing with emergencies or operational changes with excess and unhelpful numbers.

“We’re trying to optimize the ‘reason to be’ for each function” in city management, O’Connor said.

IBM has grappled with the security issues endemic to efforts to manage public data, O’Connor told Breaking Energy, and through a dashboard system provides ways to limit the kind of data and the level of detail accessible to each city management function. Sometimes the detail is more important, and sometimes the overall trends are more important, O’Connor explained, and the system allows for each employee to access only the kind of data that helps them with their responsibilities.

One of the main areas for energy consumption data use in the new Intelligent Operations Center will be real estate. Buildings account for 42% of global electricity use, and the new center allows for sensors to feed intelligent and automated data back to a central operating platform that can allow for prioritization and greater efficiency, IBM says.

The technology challenges facing utilities are enormous, and a number of different companies are trying to find ways to help manage the creation, standardization and handling of data.

Tendril is one growing start-up company working to solve these issues, but more utilities with experience in competitive markets and other technology companies like Oracle are also making a play for the burgeoning intersection of Silicon Valley IT and the electricity business.