Olivier Verscheure: Helping Cities Reinvent Themselves

IBM is filled with smart people, each of whom are actively involved in helping industries around the world do something better, more efficiently and more productively. Today, we want to feature Dr. Olivier Verscheure, Senior manager from IBM Research to discuss how he is helping cities reinvent themselves.

Tell us a few interesting things about yourself so we can get to know you?

I grew up in a small village, on the outskirts of a small town in Southern Belgium. No shops, no convenience stores or gas stations, no movie theatres, not even a traffic light. Nothing. So, for lack of better things to do, I started playing around with computers at an early age. One day in 1979 my father brought home a Commodore PET 2001 with a built-in cassette drive, not quite the IBM PC compatible hardware platform yet. I was fascinated. So I thought to myself, “Cool. Maybe one day I’ll play with computers for a living.” Fast forwarding to now, I’m a scientist at IBM Research in Dublin, Ireland where I still play around with computers and algorithms to help cities their aspiration of being ‘smarter’; i.e. rely on bits instead of concrete, copper or steel.

As an IBM Researcher, how do you apply your expertise in Big Data and analytics to help cities around the world?

At IBM, my colleagues and I conduct research in collaboration with top universities, cities and industry partners. We focus on advancing intelligent urban and environmental systems, and helping cities create scalable data analytics techniques for assimilating large amounts of noisy data from diverse sources. This helps cities understand and predict complex human and city infrastructure dynamics. I also work on large-scale optimisation algorithms for highly non-linear and uncertain dynamic systems like Big Data software for sustainable energy, urban water management and transportation. Simply put, I help cities assimilate, manage and use massive amounts of Big Data and turn it into meaningful insight to make cities more efficient.

Would you say then that this efficiency is also improving the lives of citizens?

Smarter Cities projects provide citizens improved services, and they make cities more economically competitive and sustainable. Increasingly the projects I work on are helping make cities more socially inclusive, addressing the needs and interests of a wide spectrum of citizens.

What different aspects of this data do you analyze?

We define Big Data as Variety, Velocity, Veracity and Volume. Variety and Volume are pretty clear. There’s so much data emanating from cities– and it’s so diverse. People tweeting (unstructured data), public transport vehicles reporting their GPS positions (structured XML), thousands of loop detectors reporting on traffic volume (binary data), car parks and bike parks reporting the number of available car or bike slots, etc.– these are all diverse types of data that can be used to make cities smarter. There’s also velocity. Some call velocity the speed at which the volume grows, but we talk about velocity as being how fast the data hits your servers, and how long it takes you to do something about it. For example, how fast can one reliably detect a traffic incident (and act appropriately) by analyzing, in real-time, signals, Tweets, status updates, and CCTV camera feeds? That determines Velocity. Finally, Veracity deals with uncertain or imprecise data – imprecision (noise) in the data being processed (GPS, Tweets), but also uncertainty in the information that’s being extracted and used by decision makers.

How do you think cities will look and operate in the future?

I don’t know what cities of the future will look like, but I do know cities are changing. We are seeing the rise of mega-cities with 10 million plus people. This rapid growth causes severe ecological, economical and social problems that must be addressed. It’s increasingly difficult to manage this growth in a sustainable way. It’s essential the human is placed at the centre of future city planning, creating cities that can adapt to human needs and demand, and best utilize the underlying infrastructure.

Olivier Verscheure
Olivier Verscheure

This content first appeared on Smarter Planet page on Facebook, and was republished for IBM Jobs Blog

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