The Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro has always pulsed with a vibrant energy, but these days it's a city that's sprinting at full tilt—and with good reason.
The cidade maravilhosa, or marvelous city, as it's known, is racing to meet massive infrastructure goals for not one, but two global sporting events—soccer's World Cup in 2014 and the Olympic Games in 2016. On the physical side, that means constructing stadiums, adding hotel rooms, and expanding roads and public transit.
On the information and communication technology (ICT) front, the city is also taking steps to become smarter. The crown jewel of these efforts is a spectacular operations center that recalls NASA's famed mission control and boasts an even bigger video screen—at nearly 90 square yards the largest in Latin America. City officials say the operations center, which opened for business Dec. 31, 2010, will better equip Rio for the influx of visitors ahead and is already helping improve life for its 6.3 million citizens.
More Than an Emergency Response Center
Created in partnership with IBM, Rio's operations center is no run-of-the-mill city facility. Under the guidance of Mayor Eduardo Paes, the city initially set out to build an emergency response center to deal with things like Rio's notorious and often deadly landslides and flooding, brought on by torrential rains. But as city officials began traveling the world to glean best practices from other cities, they decided on a much more sophisticated and proactive direction.
"We believe our model is broader," says Carlos Roberto Osório, Rio's secretary for conservation and public services. "It's not only focused on emergencies and traffic control, but is also a collaborative tool for anyone that has anything to do with the day-to-day running of our city."
That means everyone from city workers and city officials to external agencies and companies, including the local utility company and mass transit, sewage and water operators, Osório says. The operations center integrates more than 30 agencies, partners and secretariats, speeding response times by eliminating silos and boosting collaboration, he says.
A number of technology giants contributed to the project. Cisco donated telepresence equipment and hardware. Samsung donated the massive video screen, which displays a smorgasbord of local weather information, river levels and satellite imagery as well as video feeds from 800 traffic cameras, data from utility companies, air and water quality agencies and live feeds from police helicopters. The screen also shows flashpoints around the city—a power outage or traffic accident, for instance. It's all in real time and it's all IP-based, Osório says.
Keeping Citizens in the Loop
Communication with Rio's citizens is also paramount, Osório says. They can download an app to their smart phone or track a constantly updated stream of city alerts via Facebook and Twitter. If there's a car wreck or traffic jam—increasingly common as the hot Brazilian economy puts more cars on Rio's streets—the app will calculate alternative routes based on current and predicted traffic patterns. The operations center is also a television studio and communications hub, from which all the major networks, local daily news shows and radio shows share information.
"We have learned that a well-informed citizen is the most effective tool for avoiding problems," Osório says. "If you inform citizens fast, thoroughly and reliably, they will make the right decisions and those decisions will make the city function better."
A Long-Term Vision
Funded by the city of Rio, the operations center involved an initial budget of roughly $8 million for the physical infrastructure, plus an installation contract with IBM of about $7 million, Osório says. He says the operational cost of the brand new downtown building that houses the center is about $12 million.
As for the return on that investment, Osório prefers to focus more on quality-of-life benefits to citizens than on finances. In the center's first year of operation, he says the city saw the average response time for incidents reduced by 20 percent. This past summer, which ended in April, there were no deaths because of the torrential rains or flooding—which may or may not have had anything to do with the operations center.
So what's next for Rio?
With its emergency response facilities in good shape, Osório says the city now is working to get a handle on its traffic issues, studying technology and ideas from around the world. "We still feel there's room to improve in terms of traffic management, traffic control and traffic engineering," he says, adding that it's all part of a 20- to 50-year plan for sustainable growth in the future.
"Rio is transforming itself rapidly, becoming an intelligent, smart city," Osório says. "The operations center serves as a catalyst in this process."
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