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IBMers in ACTION

Smart people making a 'Smarter Planet'

2009: Volume 2, Article 1

Meet five IBMers who help the world work better

Today, the world is at a critical point. The crisis in financial markets is just one of a series of events that have jolted us awake to the realities and dangers of highly complex global systems, and the new reality of global integration. It has also made us realize we are all truly connected - economically, technically and socially.

This challenge is also an opportunity. One that will need those with vision and expertise to see beyond the current situation, to bring a new level of intelligence to how the world works. That takes smart people.

Fortunately, 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. Meet five IBMers who are building a "Smarter Planet" in their own unique ways.

Ron, United States - 'A love for tinkering'

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Ron's lifetime passion for "tinkering" has paid off for IBM - big time.

He started at IBM over 25 years ago and is now an expert on "smart electric grids." He always had a passion for gadgets and how to make them interact with the physical world to do good things. What makes him proudest, though, is that his teenage son and daughter love that his work for IBM is dedicated to saving the planet. They think he's cool. So does IBM.

Currently, Ron is most interested in how large systems interact with embedded systems, especially when it comes to utilities - power systems. He sees huge savings all along the way - by connecting everything and everyone together, from every house, every appliance, and every blade on a windmill, or from the employees in the back office to the people in the operations center. It has to be seen as one big system, says Ron. Alive, and in real-time.

Ron's approach: He looks at a problem, sees it in his mind and tries to start making improvements. How? By mapping it out, starting out on the edge of the system and working his way in. By creating smart sensors and control units containing software that makes decisions on the spot, and makes sure all these "things" follow a set of standards.

He sees this process as a move from isolated "islands" to ultra-large-scale systems. Ones that can benefit quite a bit from better control of power demand. The demand has to be flexible enough to give buildings and homes more control over their consumption.

His imagination is full of terms like: wind-following, automation control systems, sensor networks, real-time Linux, custom embedded operating systems, interoperability - to name a few. And with all this, he's helped change how IBM is recognized by the utility industry. When he first walked into these meetings, they wondered why he was there. Now, they worry when he's not.

Ron says that he loves to come to work because he knows what IBM does impacts the world. And he's contributing, rather, tinkering to save the planet in a way only an IBMer can.

Watch Ron explain "smart grids"

Colin, UK - 'Making a better world for his twins'

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Talk about a challenge. Try getting twin babies with chicken pox to go to sleep. "It's going to get better," says Colin to himself as he rocks the twins. His ears up against their tummies. He hears them grumbling. And it reminds him of why he does what he does: To stop the grumbling.

In the cities, Colin has seen people's quality of life falling and economies weakening. He sees billions and billions of dollars wasted. All caused by one thing: traffic congestion.

Colin smiles because he knows mass transportation systems will get the policy changes and investments needed so that one day everyone, including his twins, will wake up to a better world. One that coordinates and integrates across silos.

He's currently working with teams in Dubai, Stockholm and Dublin to make cards with RFID tags in them that integrate several modes of transportation, by taking data and mining it to help commuters get around better. He's also worked in the Singapore transport department and witnessed a marked difference in the lives of the citizens after a financially and environmentally sustainable system was put in place.

Right now, he can't stop that grumbling in the twin's tummies, and in the lives of citizens around the world who can't get where they want, when they want. He's convinced that he'll be able to figure out the latter, but completely baffled about the former. So he just keeps rocking the twins, knowing it's going to get better. Clearing a path for families in the big city in a way only an IBMer can.

Sima, Israel - 'Helping our neighbors ... around the world'

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Somewhere in Africa a man wheels a car battery through the street to charge the villagers mobile phones. Tomorrow, anywhere, someone has a heart attack. And a neighbor comes to the rescue because her mobile phone told her a neighbor was in distress. The phone knew her well enough to match her training with her neighbor's crisis.

Here's how it might happen: The mobile phone is the computing platform of the future - not the PC as many would think. The mobile phone will connect people with each other, and with other objects around them.

More than a communicating device, the cell phone might be a sensor, with eyes and ears - and even a nose. Says Sima, an IBM research scientist: "Your mobile phone may one day smell your breath for alcohol, and suggest you take a taxi home." She adds: "It's already a location device that tells you where you are, where things are, where others are, and where you'll all meet."

Your cell phone could be your next best friend, your closest confidant, if you let it get to know you - know where you are and what you're doing. It will make your life better by (among other things) connecting you to people in your neighborhood and bringing back a sense of community.

Smarter mobile devices, that know us, connect us and guide us, will be one of the biggest changes our world will experience. All from the palm of your hand.

Making mobile devices smarter so they can help us take care of our neighbors is what Sima thinks about when she's driving an ambulance in her spare time. She is helping others, in so many ways, as only an IBMer can.

Jon, Norway - 'Turning data patterns into intelligent systems'

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Do you know what geosteering is? Jon does.

These days, oil platforms are staffed with lots of people out there in the middle of somewhere like the North Sea. And all these people are monitoring and fixing and being helicoptered here, there and everywhere.

Back on dry land, there are centers dotted around the globe that support these massive platforms with all those people on them. So, in a way, there is already a network system set up - with many platforms out there in the seas, and the nodes of support centers responding to the needs of the folks out on the platforms.

When Jon looks at this pattern he sees a better way. What if the support centers could really manipulate and control the data collected at sea? What if you could reduce the number of workers needed out there on the platforms? That would reduce the risk of employee accidents and reduce the cost and environmental impact of constant helicopter trips out and back.

And Jon knows how to do it. Instrument everything. Add sensors to all parts of the platform. And have these sensors send back information about what's happening out there. And in the support centers, create huge 3D models and project these onto huge screens, almost like a rocket launch. Then connect this data, flowing in at about 20,000 data points per second, to real-time analytical software engines inside of high powered computers so that it can separate the noise from the signal.

Jon knows that with this knowledge operators at the support centers could make quicker, smarter decisions. They could practically see into the future and know with better probability if equipment is going to malfunction, or if oil is really where they are about to drill. And, because of the network, the platform in the North Seas could be 'controlled,' like a video game, from anywhere.

And, here's where geosteering comes in. The drill itself, the very tool used to select where to begin drilling into the surface of the earth - one of the most important decisions to be made by the oil company - can be equipped with sensors and cameras. It can work like the nose of bloodhound, sniffing out oil under the sea. So right down to the 6" drill bit up to the turbines and tanks on the surface, the platform comes alive with data that streams across the network - all controlled miles and miles away by people sitting in safe, warm, and dry, control centers.

This entire system helps find more oil and pulls it out of wells already dug. This reduces the number of new wells, and makes sure the wells that are dug have a better chance of hitting oil.

Smart. Seeing the platforms and the support centers as a network that can benefit from an 'intelligent' upgrade. This, and collecting fine French wines (and loving to taste the earth in each sip), is what makes IBMers like Jon want to build a smarter planet.

Vanitha, China - 'Providing a lifeline to prosperity'

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Operator, can you get me information? Sure, here it is: India, China and Indonesia have the fastest growing telco markets in the world.

More than 250 million new subscribers connect each year.

For many of those new subscribers, their mobile handset is their first phone. And for many it's not just a phone, it's a lifeline to prosperity.

In rural India and Indonesia mobile technology gives a whole new segment of the population access to communications previously out of reach. The phone is their connection to the world, to access money, to access information on the internet, to do business.

Where computers aren't readily available, mobile technology becomes the bridge across the digital divide between the cognoscenti and those previously left outside the door of prosperity.

Here's an example of what happens: Fishermen, who up until now have been dependent on supplying their fish to a particular trader, can now call ahead and advise the buyer on what the market opportunities are and connect with a marketplace of traders to get the best price for their inventory.

Vanitha has observed that, in the past five years, the telco industry has changed more than in the last 100 years. She foresees the next five years being good for at least that much change again.

And she loves it. It excites her to know she helped these countries grow, helped these people be a part of the bigger world, and helped their families live better lives.

Smart. Helping telco clients all around Asia manage the incredible demand. Vanitha is one more IBMer leading the way across the digital divide.

Editor's note: These days Vanitha is leading the way as IBM's new Vice President of Sales for India and South Asia.

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