Could a Super-Computer Save the World?
Last month IBM announced a big project in Rhode Island, and at first I just skimmed over the announcement as one of a dozen or so releases about the company’s various “smart” endeavors. But on a closer look, the project looks a lot like a model for collaboration that other states should pay attention to, particularly as they’re trying to tackle everything from climate change to healthcare with fewer resources than ever.
It all started with some of the state’s universities wishing they could get their hands on a super computer. “No one had really thought about sharing computer infrastructure,” Dr. Nicholas (Nick) Bowen, VP of Technology for IBM, said. “I said why don’t you get together and buy a super computer? Super computers are expensive, but if you divide it by 10 it’s a lot less.”
So Brown bought the computer and shared the cost and benefits with nine other schools. At the same time, IBM was just launching its Smarter Planet initiative, and Bowen got to thinking that the Rhode Island super computer could be used to improve a lot of the state’s services, not just to conduct research at the schools. “We were starting to see that by instrumenting any process that hadn’t previously been instrumented, you could find and eliminate about 30 percent of waste right off the bat,” Bowen said.
After seeing how simple IT solutions that incorporated wireless sensors and data analysis had improved things like traffic in Stockholm or quality control at a food company, Bowen began talking to the folks in Rhode Island about some of the ways they could use their new super computer to address major issues around the state. Together, they began bringing together stakeholders of all sorts into a group eventually called the Ocean State Consortium of Advanced Resources (OSCAR). Comprised of stakeholders from the local and state government, various public agencies, private businesses and the universities, OSCAR managed to pinpoint four initial projects that could benefit from the sort of research and analysis the new computer.
“Early on weren’t sure where this would go, but we felt the conversations were powerful and we were talking about projects that, if we could really do them, would have a huge impact,” Bowen said.
Interestingly, Bowen’s involvement in OSCAR after the purchase of the super computer has been all volunteer work. “It’s a community service relationship at this point,” he says. “IBM has a unique program called the Partnership Executive Program (and you know we love acronyms, so it’s the PEP program), and I had been assigned to be the PEP for both Brown and the State of Rhode Island. It’s a unique program in the sense that it’s really about building relationships; it’s not about selling, but about understanding the needs of a partner and providing a single voice to the client if they’re ever really happy or upset with their local sales people. It’s a safe place to turn if they’re not getting exactly what they want or if they want to talk about deeper, longer term things.”
Of course, Bowen admits that those relationships could lead to more business in the future, but that’s not the focus of the project. Right now the focus is launching the first of four OSCAR projects: Greening the Knowledge District.
Providence, Rhode Island is considered by many to be the birthplace of the industrial revolution in the United States. The city used to be a manufacturing hub, and at one point produced much of the country’s jewelry. Then routes 95 and 195 were built, effectively cutting the manufacturing district off from the rest of the city. As manufacturing began to decline, the district became more and more of an eyesore. At the same time, the area’s universities and other institutions built right up to the border between the rest of Providence and the industrial area. In the past five years the state has moved the intersection of these routes, reintegrating the district with the rest of the city, reclaiming 300 acres of land and officially naming the area the “Knowledge District.”
“Now imagine you’ve got ten institutions of higher education and hospitals sitting on the edge of a condemned area, and all of a sudden that area is opened up and the state and city say hey, you can start putting buildings here,” Bowen says. “That’s going to spark a lot of revitalization. In addition to new buildings, the area has a lot of great existing buildings – classic original factories that are now getting refurbished.”
OSCAR plans to make sure the revitalization of the Knowledge District is as energy-efficient as possible. The idea is to go and measure electrical use today (get a baseline), with the assumption being that, for the most part, these are inefficient buildings, and then to drive projects over the next few years to monitor their energy usage and get people to use less electricity.
It’s the first of a handful of projects the group has planned. There are four initial projects, each led by a different committee. According to Bowen, the “green” project is going first because that committee had a particularly passionate and dedicated leader and because it’s the project that the general community seemed most interested in. “They actually had to turn away volunteers,” he says.
Students from Brown and Rhode Island School of Design began measuring buildings in the Fall 2010 semester, and will continue to monitor buildings through this year, recommending various improvements.
Other projects the group will roll out include the Generations project, which will monitor children born in Rhode Island to begin to get a sense of how the environment affects a person’s DNA over time. “We know that changes in the environment can cause DNA to change during a human lifetime, and that people with certain kinds of cancer have certain things in their DNA, but researchers have not been able to make correlations because don’t have year after year DNA to study,” Bowen says. “So they don’t know if that chromosome was that way when you were born, or when you were 10, or the week before you were diagnosed with lung cancer.”
The Rhode Island study will take samples of DNA from babies when they are born, along with samples from their mothers and from their umbilical chords and placentas. Researchers will then take samples from this group for 80 years. It will be the most comprehensive longitudinal study of environmental health impacts ever done.
What makes Rhode Island the perfect place for such a study is that one hospital generates about 90 percent of births in the state, and people born in Rhode Island don’t tend to leave. A study of people born in the state in 1960 revealed that 85 percent of them were still in the state. “If you’re a scientist who wants to do a longitudinal study on how DNA changes based on environmental changes, that is the perfect situation,” Bowen says.
It will be interesting to see how the OSCAR projects progress, but in a certain sense it’s already a success story. Stakeholders from a variety of institutions, all with a different horse in the race, have managed to come together to share resources and make decisions based on what they can feasibly do, and what might be best for the greater good. It’s not a government group dictating the way things will go, or a nonprofit coming in and telling the community what’s best for it, it’s a community group comprised of both government and nonprofit members, along with business people and students, and that group has managed to inspire other members of the community to get involved.
“We’ve seen this a lot with the smarter planet initiative: There’s a lot of pent-up frustration and passion out there because people actually really want to participate, they just often don’t know how.”
By bringing people together and strategizing four real, achievable goals, OSCAR has harnessed that passion for the good of the community. Which is pretty darn smart.
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