Building a Smarter Favela: IBM Signs Up Rio

A new operations center features an impressive high-tech centerpiece–a weather forecasting system built atop IBM Research’s “Deep Thunder” software and tailored to Rio’s climate and topography.



IBM is announcing this morning an agreement with the city of Rio de Janeiro to build a “Single City Operations Center,” or what amounts to a control room for the sprawling megalopolis. The center will draw upon data from dozens of municipal departments and public agencies.

While the system will initially focus on predicting the kinds of mudslides and floods that killed hundreds last April and left 15,000 homeless, it’s designed, ultimately, to monitor and respond to any type of emergency–just in time for the city to host both the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympic Games.

The deal is IBM’s most ambitious smarter city project to date; previous efforts have tended to be single-purpose programs in developed cities, such as a congestion pricing scheme for London or water management in Dubuque. But Rio is a different situation–a bona fide megacity in one of the world’s fastest growing economies, in the midst of a multi-billion dollar infrastructure upgrade ahead of the World Cup. Although financial terms were not disclosed, the deal illuminates just how indispensable IBM hopes to become to the daily operations of Rio–and how it plans to do the same for cities everywhere.

The company’s involvement began in May at the behest of Rio mayor Eduardo Paes, who admitted after April’s mudslides that the city’s preparedness had been “less than zero.” The disaster cost roughly $13 billion in damage, while another 10,000 homes in Rio’s favelas were considered to still be at risk.

“[Paes] was very nervous about a repeat the following year,” said Guru Banavar, CTO of IBM’s Smarter Cities group. “He said, ‘Help me deal with these floods before the next rainy season,’ which meant right now.”


IBM’s consultants were happy to help, although they had more than just software in mind. To make the most of their solutions, they recommended an overhaul of how the city’s weather, geological, and civil defense agencies operate, essentially forcing them to work together.

“The ideal situation would be to appoint a sort of chief operation officer who would coordinate across multiple agencies,” Banavar said. “To my surprise, the mayor took that advice very seriously, and within a couple of days had appointed a COO.”

“This is a very special thing for IBM, because we’re seen as a trusted advisor by the mayor–not a vendor, not even a partner,” Banavar continued. “He absolutely takes us with him for most of the city-related decisions. It’s a very close relationship that has pretty much transformed the organization model for the city of Rio.”

The result is the new operations center announced today and opening Friday that will operate independently of any agency while receiving data from several of them, running it through a battery of algorithms to monitor, predict, and visualize storm damage while deciding how best to respond. “Which streets will require the most troops?” IBM materials suggest as one of the variables. “Which hills are most prone to mud slides? Are their shelters that have vacancies? Which hospitals have beds available? What is the best way to exit from a soccer match at the Maracana? How should officials direct traffic coming from the Copacabana Beach?”

The high-tech centerpiece is a new weather forecasting system built atop IBM Research’s “Deep Thunder” software and tailored to Rio’s climate and topography. Melding data from the river basin, topographic surveys, rainfall logs, and satellite info, IBM promises the system will boast an 80% success rate in predicting downpours and floods 48 hours before they occur.


The deal is notable in several respects beyond the technology and IBM’s close relationship with mayor Eduardo Paes. First, for the technology companies racing to corner the smarter cities market, the IBM-Rio agreement proves once again that simply being a vendor isn’t enough; you’re paid to solve mayoral problems. While Cisco and Samsung will contribute pieces to Rio’s operations center, “the mayor asked us to orchestrate across these companies and deliver the new system,” Banavar said. IBM’s reward: an open-ended series of contracts to keep building out the system.

Second, IBM sees Rio’s nascent urban operating system as the prototype it expects to refine and sell to cities everywhere.

“Absolutely,” said Banavar. “We’ve already started productizing this. We’re planning to deliver this as a solution that not only works for large cities, but offers small and medium-sized cities the same kind of scalability.”

Perhaps the “city in a box” isn’t that far off.

Finally, what’s being positioned as a forecasting-and-disaster-intervention system is ultimately more flexible than that. “While the system is initially built for handling flood and related emergencies,” IBM’s press release notes, “it is built to be extensible to any accident or event occurring in the city.” In addition to rainfall data, IBM is feeding footage from several hundred surveillance cameras into the mix.


Should Mayor Paes choose, his new operations center might have applications that go far beyond weather forecasts by the time the World Cup rolls around. Last month, 2,600 military and municipal police joined forces in a week-long battle to oust the city’s drug gangs from the favela known as Alemão, which the city police chief described as “the heart of evil.”

Dozens were killed, dozens more were detained, but the majority of the criminals were believed to have escaped.

Although state and federal authorities have taken the lead in pacifying the favelas, not the city, “when all is said and done, there will have to be an integration between the city government and the state, otherwise they won’t be able to perform the services citizens expect,” said Banavar. IBM has already performed similar work for the city of New York, developing a “crime information warehouse” which shares information across multiple agencies. “I would hope that such solutions would eventually be applicable for the city of Rio de Janeiro.”

About the author

He is the author, with John D. Kasarda, of Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next, which examines how and where we choose to live in an interconnected world