IBM India’s Chief Technologist on Smarter Cities Innovations

More than 400 CIOs and other company executives recently attended IBM’s Smarter Cities event in the Capital Region of India.  They worked with city planners on ways to apply technology to solve some of the worst problems in population centers.  To mark the event, the Center for CIO Leadership interviewed Dr. Manish Gupta, IBM’s Chief Technologist for India and Asia and Director of the research laboratory developing new technology for governments and companies around the globe.  Read the interview here:

Dr. Manish Gupta is the director of IBM’s India research laboratory as well as IBM’s Chief Technologist for India and South Asia.The laboratory’s researchers work in tandem with IBM consultants to help CIOs and other executives resolve challenges in business and government.

Center for CIO Leadership: Dr. Gupta, could you tell us about some of the real-world challenges you are helping CIOs solve?

Dr. Manish Gupta

Dr. Gupta, IBM India

Dr. Manish Gupta: We have worked with the CIOs of several of India’s major banks on one very common challenge: each line of business has its own copy of the database of customers. When you are trying to unify this information, it is particularly challenging in a country like India because of the lack of standardization of how we write our names, and more so our addresses. With our colleagues at the India Software Lab, we have made a significant difference in the quality of data.

In another example, as we talked to various CIOs, we learned that often the infrastructure – particularly the data warehouses – that is necessary to do analytics isn’t as sophisticated as in other parts of the world. So what we have done is come up with a lightweight solution which we call “Edge Analytics” that allows these clients to derive very interesting insights simply from the analysis of information at the edge of interaction with their own customers. It could be over the Web channel because a lot of these banks offer Internet banking. While customers are conducting transactions on the Web, the bank can analyze some of their recent transactions and, with those insights, offer the customers additional opportunities to drive more revenue.

Center for CIO Leadership: We hear from CIOs around the world that this ability to better understand what  individual customers need — and what kind of products and services they’re looking for –  is key to the company staying competitive in today’s world. Can you give us an example  of the customer insights you’re uncovering?

Dr. Gupta: One example, which is now part of IBM’s Managed CRM services offering from Global Process Services, is called “Voice of the Customer Analytics.” It works like this: when a customer calls the company’s contact center or sends and email to a service representative or has a live Web chat with an agent, Voice of the Customer Analytics evaluate all these interactions. And it does things like sentiment mining to see whether these customers are happy with, or dissatisfied with, certain products and services. The analytics also identifies common issues that different customers might be complaining about.

This technology also is able to link the unstructured information from emails and call center notes and transcripts with the structured information about the customer in the company’s databases. And link these two sources together to gain additional insight about a customer’s behavior.

In a pilot of this technology with a car company, we were able to find out whether particular customers who are dissatisfied are also thinking about buying a different car. If they are, it is particularly important for the contact center agents to turn the customer’s attitude around before he leaves the company and buys elsewhere. This kind of customer “churn” – when a customer changes car brands – is extremely expensive long term to an automotive manufacturer. We’re suggesting proactive action these companies can take to retain their customers’ loyalty.

We’re also piloting an idea called the “multi-channel next-best action” where we help the contact center agent ask the right set of questions and guide the customer toward certain promotions and offers that the customer is likely to find attractive and accept. Our pilot showed very promising results.

Center for CIO Leadership: You mentioned the challenge of linking unstructured data and structured data, which is something we hear about quite a bit with the volumes of information available to CIOs. They wonder how best to process all that data and make sense out of it. How might your research help resolve some of those challenges with “big data”?

Dr. Gupta: You’re absolutely right, the volume of information that our CIOs are dealing with is growing enormously. At IBM, we describe big data in terms of the “three V’s”: the growing volume of data; the velocity of data; and the variety of data. Interestingly, our researchers identified a “fourth V” and that is the veracity or reliability of the data.

Often, a lot of the information our CIOs are dealing with is highly uncertain, highly noisy. For example, often the information that is posted on social media sites is either ambiguous or downright misleading. And the even the company’s own customer information tends to be very noisy.

So we are coming up with effective techniques to both cleanse the data and to drive robust insights from potentially noisy data. We are working closely with the IBM product groups to bring these capabilities into our products and deliver real value to our clients.

Center for CIO Leadership: Your research team is very involved in the IBM Smarter Cities initiative and IBM’s Chairman, Sam Palmisano, just hosted a global event in Gurgaon. Could you describe some of the innovations you’re working on to make cities a better place to live and work?

Dr. Gupta: We recently had massive power blackouts in India. We are developing technologies that help with real-time situation awareness and management and we believe we can help avoid some of these kinds of grid blackouts in the future.

We’re working with the University of Brunei to help flatten the peaks in demand for electrical power and spread the load to other times when the demand is lower, to make the overall power system significantly more efficient and cost effective. We developed a special kind of “plug” that goes in-between your electrical device — like an air conditioner or water heater – and the socket. That plug senses peaks and imbalances in grid demand and automatically senses when to turn on your device.

Center for CIO Leadership: So you’re figuring out how to balance power consumption in densely populated cities. How about balancing out the traffic flow?

Dr. Gupta: Our researchers and people at the India Software Lab have been involved in working with the Land Transportation Authority of Singapore, which has one of the most advanced systems for traffic prediction. We’re complementing their work by leveraging mobile data to sense traffic congestion.

And one of our researchers came up with the idea of simply analyzing the sound that is coming from the road. By matching the sound signal to the signature of the kind of sound that is generated in free-flowing traffic versus medium-flowing traffic versus stuck traffic, we can correctly classify the traffic flow with more than 95% accuracy.

But of course we are going beyond that. We have a project underway to look at different sources of input from mobile phones and from social media feeds that people might be posting on Twitter about the state of traffic and doing analysis from these different sources and fusing all of that data together to come up with better insights about the state of traffic.

Wherever people are using Smart phones, we can analyze GPS data, and we can also look at call detail records and cell phone tower handoffs to understand the location of people. And then you can combine that with other sources to get insights about where people are at a given point in time. We’re able to provide city officials with very interesting insights about mobility patterns. Where are people living in the city? Where are people going to work? What are the spots where there is potential congestion during certain hours in a day? And how do you now design things like your public transportation? How do you design more effective bus routes or a more effective metro train route to effectively provide better public transportation options that meet the real needs of the residents of the city?

Center for CIO Leadership: It sounds like a very clever idea to use people’s cell phones, and also the sound of traffic, to help ease congestion. No doubt there will be thousands of commuters very thankful for this effort that you’re involved in. What other projects are helping make life better?

Dr.Gupta: We have a very exciting pilot planned in Saudi Arabia to apply our Spoken Web technology to help Hajj pilgrims access the Web through voice commands. Spoken Web makes it possible for people who don’t have Internet access to use the Web. Anyone with access to a mobile or land line phone can listen to information on the Web. This technology is particularly useful for people who live in remote locations and people who cannot read and write. We’re also using Spoken Web to help farmers in Africa access crop information. And we’re working on a Spoken Web pilot in India to provide better information to some of the farmers about diseases that might affect their livestock.

We also have begun work with the University of Brunei and Ministry of Industry and Primary Resources in Brunei to model the crops. We can use this detailed weather forecasting, for instance, to decide which are the right places to grow the rice crop, based on the kind of precipitation in those locations. And also come up with better advisories of certain diseases that might be actively driven by certain weather conditions.

We can also apply these detailed weather forecasts to predict the output of solar and wind farms during a given window of time. Once you are able to better predict that output based on the weather conditions, you can do better planning in terms of how much of that renewable energy output are you going to be able to put back into the grid.

In our work, we found it interesting that Brunei is the very first and the only country in the world to have a high- resolution weather forecast of the entire country. So we can come up with fairly precise forecasts of the temperature, precipitation, wind velocity and so on for very small geographical areas. We’re building hydrological models to see how we can predict flooding when it rains and help Brunei officials plan for disaster management.

Center for CIO Leadership: We’ve all seen television coverage of the incredible damage caused by floods and tsunamis around the world. It must be very rewarding to help lessen the devastation.

Dr. Gupta: Oh absolutely. When we are able to apply our expertise, come up with effective solutions and solve some of these real-world problems, it’s an extremely satisfying feeling.



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