Photo: IBMIn April of 2010, massive mudslides in Rio de Janeiro killed hundreds of people, most of them living in the city’s poorest neighborhoods, the favelas.
It was a decidedly low-tech tragedy — the unsurprising result of the chaotic, unplanned construction of the favelas, and their neglect by the city of 12 million. After the mudslides, Mayor Eduardo Paes said he was going to take a tougher stand on relocating people who live in the perilous hillside slums — a controversial move in a city where the vast gap between slum-dwellers and the elite is always a cause for concern, and even more so in the run-up to Rio’s hosting of the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics.
But Paes is also planning a much higher-tech approach to disaster response. On Monday, IBM announced the creation of a new operations center in Rio, a project of IBM’s Smarter Cities program. The multimillion-dollar center, which opens December 31, will give the city’s emergency management team access to a vast array of data — from state-of-the-art weather forecasts to information about local hospitals — so that they can more efficiently coordinate the response to natural disasters.
In the future, the system’s reach could be expanded. From the IBM press release:
The system was designed initially for forecasting floods and related emergencies, but it is extensible to any event occurring in the city — be it the Reveillon Party at Copacabana beach, the exit of fans from a soccer match at the Maracanã or a traffic accident. The Center will enable city leaders to make decisions in emergency situations based on real-time information.
According to Mark Cleverley, IBM’s director of government strategy, the development of the operations center was the result of a “serendipitous” combination of factors — including the presence of an IBM research lab in Rio, and local staff who were committed to bringing the “smarter city” concept to Brazil. The nation’s economy is still growing, despite the global financial crisis. And the challenge of hosting the World Cup and the Olympics in quick succession is providing an impetus to modernize Rio.
These days, that doesn’t simply mean building new roads and stadiums. It means a radical rethinking of the way that city agencies collect and use the vast array of information now available.
“It’s not so much a departure, as an enhancement, if you like,” said Cleverley in a phone interview. “They are thinking in a quite leading-edge way about softer infrastructure.”
Whether the innovations will benefit all of the city’s residents remains to be seen. Rio, with its drug gangs, its difficult topography, and its huge, diverse population, is nothing if not complicated. Even the most sophisticated technologies in the world can’t change that. But that’s also what makes it such an interesting test case in the evolution of more connected — and maybe even smarter — cities.