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Melding Technology and Urban Management: Rio de Janeiro's Operations Center

(Image: Rachel Glickhouse)

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

How can a city as complex as Rio de Janeiro respond to incidents in real-time and ensure the city functions during numerous massive events? Rio's Operations Center, a $14 million facility inaugurated in late 2010, provides solutions using cutting-edge technology.

Rio's Operations Center is the first of its kind in Latin America, with the largest video wall in the region. IBM developed the Center as a part of its Smarter Cities initiative, and could model Rio's facility in other cities. “Smart is all about information,” IBM Vice President of Industry Solutions Research Guru Banavar told The New York Times. “Once you have the information and understand it and know what to do with it, you are halfway to smart.”

The Center is unique in that it integrates around 30 municipal and state entities, ranging from the city's electricity provider to the fire department. Three times a day, the control room coordinator holds a meeting to ensure that all agencies communicate about the latest incidents in the city. The idea behind the Center—which operates 24 hours a day—is to minimize the impact of emergency situations and be able to respond quickly and in a coordinated manner.

Rio Operations Center

Clad in white, NASA-like jumpsuits, the Center's 400-member staff largely focuses on traffic and weather, as well as emergency situations such as power outages or floods. But incidents such as a street brawl or a riot are also monitored. While the Center does not directly address public security issues, a new center will soon open devoted to this issue, with a member from the Operations Center present to coordinate between the two agencies. But the police do form a part of the Center's team. For example, last week the city's main train station closed during rush hour one night due to an accident, so the police were alerted in order to avoid confrontations involving frustrated commuters. 

In the control room, several monitors track satellite images of weather patterns. IBM designed the high-resolution forecasting system specifically for the Center, allowing staff to forecast major rainstorms up to 48 hours before they hit. Directly from the Center, officials can set off emergency siren systems in the city's favelas during heavy rainstorms to alert residents to evacuate in case of mudslides. Other screens provide live feeds from traffic cameras. Because of construction for the upcoming mega-events, the Center must constantly help redirect traffic. Staff from the traffic agency can actually change the traffic lights from the Center to make them shorter or longer, depending on where they want to redirect vehicle flows. They also control the electronic traffic signs on the city's highways, providing the latest information to drivers.

A Google Earth map appears on another large screen, showing 100 layers of information ranging from hospital locations to GPS locations of tow trucks to traffic accidents. IBM designed a platform to receive information via phone, radio, email, and text messages, and to analyze past information to pinpoint common locations and times that car accidents occur, for example. The Center also has a crisis room that allows officials to monitor situations in real-time. For the World Cup, Olympics, and other large events like concerts and the upcoming Pope visit, the Center plans dedicated traffic lanes, police escorts, and alternate traffic routes.

Because the Center focuses on responding to crises, it can help save lives. Last year, three buildings collapsed in downtown Rio, killing 17 people. By coordinating with all of the city's agencies, the nearby metro stations closed, traffic was rerouted, and air space shut down. Police arrived to close the streets and secure the site, potentially preventing further fatalities. Every day, representatives from the health department monitor the number of hospital beds available to be able to respond to accidents and larger-scale incidents.

The Center not only provides real-time analysis and response to situations throughout the city to government agencies, but it also provides information to Rio residents and the press. The Operations website and social media channels on Facebook and Twitter give updates on what's happening around the city, as well as accepting tips about incidents in order to investigate and report them.