IBM Chief Executive Lays Out Smart System Vision

Darryl K. Taft covers IBM, big data and a number of other topics for TechWeekEurope and eWeek

In a recent speech in London, IBM chairman, president and CEO Sam Palmisano laid out IBM’s vision of the next decade as the decade of the smarter system

In a recent speech in London, IBM chairman, president and CEO Sam Palmisano laid out IBM’s vision of the next decade as the decade of the smarter systems. Among the many areas IBM is focusing on to enable a Smarter Planet is smart water management.

In his 12 January speech at the Chatham House in London, Palmisano said:

“By a smarter planet, we mean that intelligence is being infused into the systems and processes that enable services to be delivered; physical goods to be developed, manufactured, bought and sold; everything from people and money to oil, water and electrons to move; and billions of people to work and live.”

Yet, despite water being viewed as cheap and abundant, due to existing water management systems, one in five people on the planet do not have adequate access to safe, clean drinking water, IBM said.

However, the total amount of water on this planet has not changed, but the nature of that water is constantly changing. Everything from where rain falls to the chemical makeup of the oceans is in flux, IBM said. Thus, IBM’s efforts are aimed at preserving and protecting clean water for drinking, bathing, electric power, industrial manufacturing, food and the irrigation of crops.

Particularly, during the winter season and holidays, the combination of cold weather and more home cooking makes this time of the year a high risk season for sewage overflows and leaky pipes. Many water and sewage infrastructures date back to the 1800 and early 1900s, and are overwhelmed by the fats, oils, and grease poured in kitchen sinks or other drains, which can cause blockages in city sewer lines resulting in overflows that pollute the environment. Smarter systems of the type Palmisano describes can help to prevent such problems.

According to Lux Research, better information about water usage will save utilities money, make water management more efficient and provide one of the simplest solutions to the problem of water scarcity. In fact, Lux estimates that the market for water IT will reach $16.3 billion by 2020.

Indeed, to be truly efficient, water utilities and treatment plants need real-time management and analytics systems to track the condition of each critical component, or “asset,” including water pumps, valves, collection pipes and electrical equipment so that potential problems such as a burst water main or a sewage overflow can be quickly identified and resolved.

IBM analytical software gives maintenance and operations staff a view of the all assets across the utility to help prevent potential water emergencies. And IBM systems tap geospatial data to show exactly where that asset is on a map while describing its condition, cost, maintenance history.

Software lies at the heart of these systems. IBM’s acquisition of MRO Software in 2006 enhanced Big Blue’s decades-long work in the rail, water and other vertical industries by adding asset management capabilities. IBM attained MRO’s Maximo asset management software in that acquisition and Maximo is a key component of IBM’s Smarter Planet initiatives, because it helps organizations track each and every asset across their enterprises – spanning both physical and IT assets, IBM officials said.

As part of its Smart Water initiative, IBM in November 2009, announced that it and the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority (DC WASA) have been working together to modernise the management of the aging water and sewer infrastructure beneath the nation’s capital. The sprawling infrastructure includes hundreds of thousands of assets such as water distribution pipes, valves, public fire hydrants, collection pipes, man holes and water meters, IBM said.

IBM’s Global Business Services and Research units started the collaboration with DC WASA to integrate advanced analytics with asset management software from IBM and a mapping application from ESRI, an IBM business partner. IBM said the availability of real time, map-based information and geo-analytics will help DC WASA engineers identify potential problems before they occur. This can be done by analysing an enormous amount of data and uncovering patterns related to weather conditions, water use and hundreds of other variables, the company said.

“The work of water relies heavily on our ability to monitor our infrastructure,” said George Hawkins, general manager of DC WASA. “We can now manage almost every component from central, computer-based systems. Our collaboration with IBM will help us streamline our workload and serve our customers better.”

IBM said the new preventative measures, including converting to automated meter readers, have substantially reduced billing-related customer calls. And a future benefit of the project is that it will enable dispatchers to deploy crews based on where they are working and what areas need service. The system will also enable DC WASA to share and exchange data both internally for planning purposes and externally to assist other agencies, such as sharing real-time status of the more than 9,000 public hydrants in DC with the DC Fire and Emergency Medical Services.

Based on data from the IBM Maximo software, the hydrant status and water flow capacity of each hydrant can be mapped and seen by the fire department via Google Earth. And as firefighters rush to the scene of a fire, they will know in advance the level of water flow to expect out of the hydrants in the vicinity.

“Our work with IBM has allowed our assets to communicate with us – and we’re doing more than just listening, we’re taking action,” said Mujib Lodhi, CIO of DC WASA, in a statement. “Using IBM software, we’re able to deploy our crews faster, which is key when there’s water on the road or customers are without service. For day-to-day maintenance, the IBM software helps us to coordinate and plan our crews weeks ahead so we can work much more efficiently.”

IBM said its project with DC WASA is part of IBM’s first-of-a-kind (FOAK) program, which pairs IBM’s scientists with clients to explore how emerging technologies can solve real world business problems.