Business Analytics Turns Data Into Intelligence

By Tony Kontzer

Judging from recent headlines, it would be easy to conclude that the real value of business analytics software is in helping organizations contend with their so-called big data problems. However, many organizations don’t yet have a big data problem.

In fact, aside from the biggest players in the most data-intensive industries, most organizations are simply trying to put whatever data they have to work. And thanks to the fact that powerful analytics tools—formerly the domain of huge enterprises—have become available to businesses of all sizes, any organization can now turn its data into actionable intelligence.

Take the city of South Bend, Ind. Like many American cities, South Bend has an aging infrastructure that has sometimes created significant issues for civic decision-makers. For instance, up until 2005, the city’s 1950s-era combination water delivery and sewer system was plagued by as many as 30 overflow incidents a year, during which debris dislodged during storms would collect at the “on-ramps” to the main sewer arteries, says Gary Gilot, president of South Bend’s Board of Public Works.

Sewage would overflow damns, back up into homes and cause other damage, resulting in frequent threats of multimillion-dollar fines from state and federal regulators. The only way for the city to minimize those incidents was to have field workers physically observe each of the system’s 36 on-ramp junctions and, if possible, remove the debris. It was an inefficient approach that didn’t provide sufficient public health and environmental safeguards.

But then Gilot came across two technologies he thought could help: a real-time sewer-monitoring system being developed by entrepreneurs at nearby University of Notre Dame and IBM’s Intelligent Operations Center, an analytics-based software package that’s designed to help cities monitor and manage services. The city installed credit-card-sized computer sensors at 116 locations in its sewer system and started feeding data from those sensors into the analytics software.

Once the technology was in place, it was as if the city had a whole new sewer system, without replacing a single piece of pipe. “We now have the smartest sewer system not only in America, but perhaps in the world,” Gilot claims.

Gilot and the city’s sewer technicians and operators suddenly had Web-based access to a tool that works like a GPS traffic report, using color codes on a map of the sewer system to indicate where potential problems are brewing and allowing sewer staff to prevent backups and overflows before they happen.

“What I found from the data analytics is that I could have room in my downstream pipes, but have overflow in my upstream pipes due to weather,” says Gilot. With a system of real-time sensors in place, the city can now ensure that when rainfall is heavier in a certain part of town, the resulting sewer flows can be routed to areas where the pipes aren’t getting as much use—much the way networks route Internet traffic.

As a result, the city has eliminated 95 percent of the overflows it once endured. Better yet, the entire platform cost the city $6 million, a far cry from the $120 million in sewer improvements it faced if it had opted to make traditional fixes.

Meanwhile, the analytics setup is delivering far more additional value than originally anticipated. Water distribution system operators are using the system to monitor when they flush out iron and manganese buildup, a process that can result in overflows if it’s not closely controlled. And the mayor of South Bend has a Web-based dashboard view that lets him keep tabs on the state of the water and sewer system.

In addition, Gilot says that over the next year, the city will start using data the system contains about water service shutoffs to inform police about the locations of abandoned and foreclosed homes. This will enable the police to efficiently provide additional patrols in those areas and avoid unnecessary blight.

What’s more, the city has identified an additional $23 million in potential operational savings over the next five years by adding sensors, purchasing more licenses for the analytics software and using the system’s data to help make a variety of services more efficient.  One such service involves closely monitoring sidewalk temperatures in order to more accurately plan for purchases of de-icing materials. To that end, Gilot says he’s working with the entrepreneurs at Notre Dame to be able to tag more types of data in the Intelligent Operations Center to support such efforts.

“It’s one platform that’s beginning to look across the silos and run a smarter city,” says Gilot.




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