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Sensing troubled waters in a Smarter City

In India, IBMers hope to alert cities when waters get dangerous

Urban flooding is a severe, annual problem in many parts of the world. Every monsoon season in India, water as high as two feet inundates the streets, shops and homes in Mumbai, Kolkata, Delhi and other cities, damaging property, spreading disease, and killing and injuring hundreds.

“Recently I have been in touch with the urban flooding situation in my own city of Hyderabad,” says Nithya Rajamani, IBM’s lead for Smarter Cities from its research division in India. “Most everyone in India has been impacted by urban flooding at some point in their lives. When I was young I remember wading through water-clogged streets, or being stuck in traffic disruptions for hours in Chennai. Sadly, there are also situations that have killed people.”

Nithya, together with Mezjan Dallas, who is a senior manager leading industrial sector solutions at IBM’s software lab in India, and Dhrubajyoti Sen, a professor at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Kharargpur, determined they could develop an inexpensive solution to warn people of possible flood conditions with enough time to take action.

With support from an IBM Centennial Grant, the project, now called the Sensor Web for Smarter Cities (SENSIT), will instrument cities with sensors. The interconnected sensors will provide rainfall amounts and drainage channel water levels. Then the data will be analyzed by an intelligent algorithm to forecast and identify trouble spots—making the forecasts available on the Internet, and issuing warnings via text messages and e-mails, if appropriate.

Applying talent and partnership to a societal challenge

Flooding is prevalent in certain coastal cities like Kolkata, with a population of more than 15 million people, where the project will first be implemented. Motivated by his IBM manager to create a specialization in water management, Mezjan says, “The Sensor Web will enable better flood management in Kolkata and help authorities make well-informed decisions in emergency response based on real circumstances on the ground.”

A team from IIT, led by Professor Sen, will develop the sensors, deploy the communications network, set up the algorithm for flood forecasting, and establish the data sharing system, with the assistance of volunteers from IBM with various skills—from data management and analytics to Smarter City products such as Intelligent Operations Centre and Integrated Information Core, to hydrology modeling.

Mezjan is excited about the partnership with IIT. He says, “There isn’t much that is more satisfying than jointly working with a leading academic partner towards making a city smarter and the lives of fellow citizens better.” Mezjan quickly adds, “Actually, receiving an IBM Centennial Grant is a very satisfying acknowledgement that we may be able to have a positive impact on a serious problem.”

Both Nithya and Mezjan are embracing the opportunity to apply their professional talents to a societal challenge. “Participating in this project makes us feel that we are taking a step to impact the country and its people,” says Nithya. “We are proud to be closer to making Indian cities smarter in an area we each can personally relate to.”

“I've always wanted an opportunity to make a difference to people's lives and communities—this is the perfect chance to do that,” says Mezjan.

IBM is marking its centennial year with a worldwide celebration of volunteer service. Throughout 2011, IBM invites everyone to join our global community of employees, retirees, families and friends as we support the communities where we work, live and learn together.