Arik Hesseldahl

Recent Posts by Arik Hesseldahl

IBM Scores a Touchdown With Football’s Miami Dolphins

When 72,000 people get together in a stadium to watch an NFL football game, you may as well have a small city on your hands. And the logistical challenges associated with making game day go smoothly are similar: Infrastructure like power and plumbing needs to work; food needs to be delivered; traffic flow of vehicles and pedestrians has to be managed. It’s a big job.

Big like a big-data and analytics problem, the kind that IBM is making a name for itself in tackling. That’s exactly what Big Blue has agreed to do for the Miami Dolphins, the company said today, in the latest announcement by its Smarter Cities unit.

The Dolphins have tapped IBM to help the team operate Sun Life Stadium. The Dolphin’s home field during the regular season, it also has been known, over the years, to host the Super Bowl and the Orange Bowl. It has 1.5 million square feet of space, 75,000 seats and 24,000 parking spaces. Just try keeping track of it all by yourself.

The team has taken software that IBM developed for running cities, known as its Intelligent Operations Center, and put it to work in managing the stadium, and to trying to make the experience of attending a game more interesting for fans.

The IOC software is in use by several cities around the world, not the least of which, I’m told, is New York City. It’s typically used to view interconnected operations around a city, and monitor in real time for problems, but also to analyze underlying data to indicate where problems are cropping up.

If you think about it, a football game is just a great big business transaction that, like any other, generates a lot of data that’s just begging to be analyzed in order to make it more efficient and less costly, and to help it run smoothly. The IOC software, IBM says, provides a window into ongoing stadium activity and helps manage traffic flow, even to tracking where visitors like to eat before or during a game.

Aside from the tickets themselves, the big business at any stadium is in concessions, and the team is always looking for a way to nudge fans to buy food and drink while they’re in their seats, enticing them with specials. But if you’re the kind of fan who wants to have a sit-down rather than grab a beer and a brat during game, it makes sense for the team to try and know that about you, and act accordingly when you get to the stadium. IBM had more to say about it in a short video, which I embedded below.

This is the second major engagement for IBM’s Smarter Cities group in as many weeks. Last week, Big Blue was tapped by the Chinese city of Zhenjiang to help it modernize its public transportation infrastructure. To get the job done, IBM created a software platform that is aimed at increasing how much traffic the city can handle every day while also anticipating and preventing traffic jams before they happen.

If that seems a little dull, consider the numbers: Cities struggling to get their traffic under control — and thus allow people to be more productive — are willing to spend billions to get the job done. One estimate by Pike Research suggests that cities in Asia will spend $36 billion on this problem between now and 2020, or about $5.5 billion a year. IBM doesn’t say how much Zhenjiang is spending with it, but these deals are rarely small.

I recently had a chance to visit with Karen Ann Parrish, the IBM VP who runs the Smarter Cities program, and while it doesn’t take much to get her talking at length about it, once you do, you can’t help but walk away from the conversation realizing that Smarter Cities is kind of a big deal. Oddly enough, the needs of New York to respond to a terrorist attack quickly are similar to the needs of Rio de Janiero in Brazil, which needed to respond to life-threatening floods. It’s all about finding patterns, Parrish says. “We sat with a number of clients and asked if we could find some ways to codify the best ways to respond to these emergencies and other problems that come up. If we learn from these patterns, we can solve these problems a lot more quickly,” she told me. Thus the Smarter Cities business was born.

There is at least a future to this business. Projections show that 70 percent of the world’s population is going to live in cities by the year 2050, which basically means that the cities themselves are going to have to tackle an ever-growing set of problems in the coming years. They’re going to need all the help they can get.

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Nobody was excited about paying top dollar for a movie about WikiLeaks. A film about the origins of would have done better.

— Gitesh Pandya of comments on the dreadful opening weekend box office numbers for “The Fifth Estate.”