Analytics helping cities and citizens smartly manage water metering

Real-time data on water usage benefits providers and end users

Editor’s note: This article is by Bradley Eck, IBM Research-Ireland’s Smarter Cities Technology Centre manager in Dublin.

A faucet that drips just once per second wastes 2,700 gallons of water, annually. My Water and Environment team is developing tools and methodologies, as part of an EU-funded project called iWIDGET, to manage urban water demand by reducing waste like leaky taps.

iWIDGET links 9 expert partners together to look at how analytics and smart meters can help cities and their citizens get real-time data on their water and related energy usage – with the aim of improving the management of urban water demand by reducing waste, and improving utilities’ understanding of end-user demand, and ultimately reducing customer water and energy costs.

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iWIDGET provides householders with easily accessible information that will allow them to make decisions on how to reduce water usage, and thus, their water bills. Plus, as utilities will have better visibility on their customers’ usage, they will be able to more-accurately forecast demand – and send their customers alerts if a leak is suspected.

Building iWidget

For our part, my team in Dublin focused on iWIDGET’s system architecture to improve a utility’s planning, operation, and management of real-time sensor data, and developed analytics around the high-resolution consumption data. Not an easy task, as this involves noisy raw data and dozens of third party systems and analytical tools. So, we built an API for the entire system that connects and interfaces with each partner’s components.

iWidget on the iPhone
Some of the components can be accessed via mobile applications. Meter Replacement, for example, looks at the history of readings and meter type to determine the best time to replace their meters. Another app focuses on pump scheduling, where real time data from smart meters feed in to a pumping plan that helps reduce energy costs.

iWIDGET system trials have started in Portugal, Greece and the UK, and will conclude in 2015. The envisaged outcome of the iWIDGET project is increased interoperability between water information systems at the European Union and national levels, and overall improved efficiency of water resource management. 

For more information on the project please visit the iWIDGET project website, or join our group on LinkedIn, or follow @iWIDGET_FP7 on Twitter.


IBM Scientists Recognize Day of Photonics

DAY OF PHOTONICS is an annual event organized in Europe that promotes “photonics” towards the general public. IBM scientists are researching photonics because it uses light instead of electrical signals to transfer information for future computing systems, thus allowing large volumes of Big Data to be moved fast between computer chips in servers, large cloud data-centers, and supercomputers.

In the videos below IBM scientists discuss how they are using photonics.

Join the conversation on Twitter #dayofphotonics

Personality and Visualization

Our team at IBM Research – Australia is currently looking for people who have tweeted at least 200 original public tweets to complete a 20 minute questionnaire about interpreting data from visualizations.

Research shows that people with high levels of Conscientiousness or low levels of Neuroticism (from the Big 5 OCEAN personality traits) tend to be faster learners than people with high levels of Neuroticism or low levels of Conscientiousness. Our goal is to determine whether there is a similar relationship between users’ personality types, and their ability to interpret information presented in visualization graphs. This will then allow systems such as Watson Analytics to automatically select the best visualizations to suit the user's personality type.

Please email our lead scientist Lida Ghahremanlou with your Twitter handle if you are interested in participating. There are only a fixed number of spots for the study, but if your handle is accepted, you will receive an email link to the questionnaire.

Screenshot of a Visualization Graph of the Research Questionnaire


The possibilities of Project Lucy

The TED Institute micro-documentary on Project SyNAPSE gave us a look at the future of cognitive computing, with glimpses at some possible practical applications. Those exciting possibilities become positively exhilarating in the Project Lucy micro-documentary, which gives us an idea of the potential for cognitive computing to transform a continent.

The project is a collaboration between IBM researchers in Africa and the company’s business and academic partners to apply IBM Watson to the continent’s biggest challenges. The goal is to use Watson to discover insights from big data and develop commercially viable solutions in the areas of energy, healthcare, water and sanitation, agriculture, human mobility and education. 

It is this last area that is the particular focus of IBM researcher Dr. Charity Wayua. In the film, the Kenya-based Wayua lays out the ambitions for cognitive computing to give teachers greater ability to deal with crowded classrooms. Armed with data-based insights, teachers can address needs and situations on a student-by-student basis.

While Africa’s challenges are daunting, it is far from the only place where classrooms are overcrowded, teachers are overstretched, and children are underserved. The potential impact on Africa’s education systems is awesome to contemplate, and it’s easy to see how the benefits could be replicated around the globe. Add in the other challenges Project Lucy is tackling and the potential for cognitive computing to improve the lives of millions becomes even greater. 

“For the African continent,” said Wayua, “I think this is going to be our 'big bet' on transformation.” If that big bet pays off, it won’t just transform Africa, it will transform the world.

Editor's note: This article is by Jonathan Batty, external relations leader for IBM's global labs.


Multilingual Watson

Learning to understand the human gift of language

DJ McCloskey, IBM Watson Group
Machines use programming languages to at least appear to understand our human languages. IBM Watson is one of the most sophisticated, helping everyone from healthcare providers to sous chefs by using several programming languages and algorithms to read and comprehend natural language. But the system could only answer questions posed in English – until now.

Natural Language Processing architect D.J. McCloskey leads a team “teaching” Watson the fundamental mechanisms to comprender español, entender português, 日本語を理解する(understand Japanese), and many other languages.

“Back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the notion of a machine reading text was primarily defined by creating search indexes out of the words in text. We wanted to take it one step farther where ‘reading’ actually meant ‘understanding’ the text. So, we created LanguageWare in 2001, a technology that could automate fact extraction from the text,” D.J. said.

LanguageWare established a lightweight, optimized library of functions for processing natural language text, using a set of generalized structures and algorithms that captured the essence of language. Multilingual by design, this foundation gave LanguageWare a way to process text from any language so that a machine could understand the atomic sentence context, and build semantic understanding of that sentence in any language.

But D.J.’s team developed this sophisticated tooling with the mantra of “involve the humans” in mind. By letting humans teach the machines everything about language – from word morphology, to knowing the difference between “run” and “running” and “goose” and “geese,” and transcribing the knowledge of domain experts (learning from a subject’s human masters) – the system can then detect accurately worded facts in text, such as negative reactions to a drug, or an acquisition of one company by another. Today, Watson’s entire suite of cognitive capabilities uses and extends this tooling.

“And in Watson we have employed this capability to capture and apply precise knowledge from oncology experts, providing a way for human experts to teach the system at a deep level,” D.J. said.

Gluing it together with open architecture

These analytics and algorithms work together on top of Apache’s Unstructured Information Management Architecture, or UIMA (“you-ee-mah”). Its open architecture gave LanguageWare back in 2001, and Watson today, a way to combine their analytics with other complementary analytics to rapidly collaborate and prototype new ideas – a way to end up with a whole much greater than the sum of its parts, like the ideas from the Watson Mobile Challenge.

“I remember trying to convince people of the viability of machines understanding unstructured data, pre-Watson,” said D.J. “And then Watson (and UIMA) happened, and now people believe it can cure cancer, and make our tea!

“Amazingly enough, the power of this technology actually has potential to help do both – and more. Watson can’t cure cancer but we have real solutions where Watson Oncology Advisor helps consultant oncologists improve treatment of cancer patients. And a member of our team recently made Chef Watson’s Korean BBQ lemon cupcakes and they were awesome (with my tea)!”

Parsing languages (other than English)

Another ingredient in Watson’s NLP pantry is its parser. This set of code helps it analyze and understand the written English language down to the grammar and syntax level. For example, Watson’s parser lets the system know “who did what to whom,” as in “the boy kicked the ball.” So, a question about what was kicked will find “the ball” as the receiver of said action.

But not all sentences operate the same way or in the same order.

Say “Hola” to Watson, and find out more about its new capabilities, and its new home at Astor Place in New York City, here.
In English, the subjects, verbs, and objects follow a certain order: “John saw Mary.” John did the seeing, while Mary was seen in a subject-verb-object order. However, in Hindi it is “Jŏna mairī dēkhā,” or “John Mary saw,” so a subject-object-verb order. And in Ireland, where D.J. lives and works, verbs follow subjects, which follow objects for “Chonaic John Máire” which is “Saw John Mary.”

D.J.’s team chose Spanish first, a widely spoken representative of a romance language, as Watson’s next language to parse, but hopes to build a generic parser that, once plugged into UIMA, will allow Watson to understand any language.

“We are after the mechanics of language to get to a point where Watson works between languages in a pragmatic way, Watson going global!” D.J. said.

Now, with Watson’s capabilities on BlueMix available to developers all around the world, its ability to process local language just as well as English will be increasingly valuable. New mobile apps could exploit all of Watson’s natural language power on regionally relevant knowledge sources. Ultimately, Watson will be cross lingual, meaning questions in one language can find answers in another and be returned to the user, translated back into his or her native or preferred language – making the knowledge of to world available to all regardless of language.

More about IBM Watson


Creativity the ingredient for ACM award recipe

ACM winner Jakub Ocwieja
Warsaw University's Jakub Ocwieja and Comenius University's Peter Fulla have a lot of things in common. Both are young university students, both like algorithms, and both were part of teams that took home medals at the Association of Computing Machinery's International Collegiate Programming Contest World Finals 2014 in Ekaterinburg, Russia.

When they visited IBM Research-Zurich in September to meet fellow computer scientists and to present the their winning projects, we spoke to them about competing in the oldest, and certainly one of the most prestigious, programming contests in the world -- where Jakub's "team Jagiellonian" earned a silver medal, and Peter's "team Docikáme ďalej" earned bronze.

IBM Research: How did you hear about the contest, and why did you decide to compete?

Jakub Ocwieja (JO): ACM is very well known at the Warsaw University and every year there are many students who compete. I wanted to participate and see if I could beat other students and I just like solving problems, especially in algorithms.

Peter Fulla (PF): It is a good feeling to end up amongst the 50 best college programmers in the world. I also like the t-shirt, which is a frequent prize in such competitions.

ACM winner Peter Fulla
Their interest in computer science and algorithms started at an early stage. Peter participated in various programming competitions during high school and decided to pursue a CS degree. And Jakub had access to a computer as a young boy, thanks to his elementary school and older brother. As a young student, he learned how to program turtle movements in LOGO. Shortly thereafter, his brother gave him a book about the programming, PASCAL, which helped him qualify for the final of the Polish Olympiad in Informatics during his first year of high-school.

PF: In high school, I just started participating in similar competitions, and the ACM challenge was just a natural thing to do.

IBM: As someone from the millennial generation, are organizations like the ACM and research awards still important?

PF: I think it drives a lot of young people towards computer science in general. Competing is an enjoyable way to learn how to program. You also meet people of similar minds. I think that programming competitions are very important and beneficial for the whole industry of computer science, and I hope organizations like the ACM continue to support these competitions.

IBM: The competition is based on creativity, team work and innovation. How important is creativity in Computer Science?

JO: Even though Computer Science is one of the youngest fields of science, it is a great challenge to invent algorithms. So creativity plays a significant role to progress the field.

Jakub and Peter are ambitious students with a strong focus on the future. While at the Comenius University in Bratislava, Slovakia, Peter created an artificial intelligence player that could play the game Dominion against humans. And the computer actually managed to win several games.

As a member of the mathematical faculty at the Warsaw University, Jakub worked on an algorithm could find the distance between points on a map faster than had previously been done by a machine.

IBM: Have you participated in a more memorable programming competition?

PF: A few years ago, I attended the International Olympiad in Informatics held in Cairo, Egypt. At some point I stepped out of the conference to visit the pyramids. To my astonishment, a local salesman grabbed me and seated me on his camel. I was so shocked I didn't even resist. In the end I had to pay him over 50 dollars to finally get off that camel. I won’t make that mistake again!

IBM: What are your career aspirations?

JO: I am just finishing my Master Degree in Computer Science, so I am still considering several possibilities. I might work as a software developer or I might focus on some research in the same direction.

PF: I am just starting my PhD at the University of Oxford now, and after three years, I hope I'll be able to decide which path I want to take -- whether it will be in the academia or in some similar lab like this one. 

IBM: What’s your impression of the IBM Research - Zurich lab and of IBM in general?

JO: I didn’t have much opportunity to see the lab itself but I have heard about projects that IBM does here and I am very impressed by the scope of the projects and the topics of your research.

PF: My impression is that you do a lot of interesting things and I would be happy to do an internship in the same areas. What I particularly like is that you solve problems which have really interesting applications in real life. That practical application is one part which is truly interesting -- that it matters what you do here.

And those problems are in fact interesting from an algorithm point of view. It is often challenging to come up with the algorithm that solves the problem. I am more of a theoretical guy, so this is a nice change to have something which is also relevant to many people.

Interview conducted by Malena Sundstroem, IBM Research


Microserver powered by the sun

IBM scientist Ronald Luijten has many hobbies, from gliding over the Swiss alps at 4,000 meters, to taking photos with his quadrocopter, or tinkering with technology -- particularly microservers, which he refers to as "data centers in a box."

By day, Ronald is working on a 64-bit microserver for the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), an international consortium to build the world’s largest and most sensitive radio telescope. He hopes that someday petabytes of Big Data from the Big Bang (13 billion years ago) will be crunched on the microserver, and uncover fundamental questions about the universe, including are we alone?

By night and on the weekends, Ronald has also built a microserver to host his website swissdutch.ch. The passionate environmentalist spent this past weekend "unplugging" his microserver from the electricity grid and and now powers it from solar panels backed-up with batteries.

"On September 27, 2014, I changed the energy source of the wandboard Quad to solar panels. I installed 40W of photo-voltaic panels feeding a lead acid battery of 18Ah (2x 9 Ah). The panels come in increments of 20W, and I did not think 20W was enough to make it through winter. Note that around this time of year (September), the sun is right between its minimum and maximum high point. So, I pointed the panels due south at an angle of 45 degrees," Ronald said.

To keep track of Ronald's progress visit his blog or follow him on Twitter @ronaldgadget