She was coming right at us. Rose. Over a thousand miles of churning thunderheads, winds well above 300 kilometers per hour, a predicted storm surge of at least seven meters, and enough rain to put half of Houston under water.
From Big Data to Smart Data
Scenario 2030: The City Speaks
As a massive storm approaches the U.S. Gulf Coast, the head of Houston’s Office of Emergency Management briefs the mayor in an interactive chamber that collectively represents everything that is happening throughout the city in real time and in virtually limitless detail.
Satellites crisscrossing North America had detected a tropical depression in the Caribbean Sea a week earlier, and oceans of remote sensing data had rapidly been distilled into a warning as the depression veered northwestward, skimming the Yucatán Peninsula and soaking up moisture and power from warm Gulf of Mexico waters.
Twenty-four hours before a single wisp of cloud blemished the city’s characteristically cobalt sky, our Office of Emergency Management (OEM) was preparing for the worst. The center’s vast, immersive, interactive displays showed the storm approaching from the south as the city’s vital signs were superimposed over composite real-time images of the skyline like a scene from some wildly oversized intensive care unit.
Based on the storm’s predicted trajectory, OEM software agents had automatically initiated dialog with their counterparts in city infrastructures, ranging from traffic management to power generation, healthcare, security, and wastewater. The agents — highly-secure, autonomous expert entities — can fan out through an infrastructure such as the information systems of all the hospitals in the area, determine if each facility has adequate supplies of everything from backup power to water, trigger local agents to order what’s missing, and report any problems back to OEM Central.
Green Lights for Ambulances
“What are those little critters up to?” asked Mayor Celeste D’Angelo, as if she had known without a doubt that I was thinking about the agents.
“You know that traffic management infrastructure we put in a few years ago?” I said. “They’ve gone through it, intersection by intersection, even in outlying counties, checking that every battery is fully charged so that the signals will continue to operate for days even if the power goes down. They’ve ordered installers to service or replace any batteries that test below par. Our automated maintenance vehicles are already at work. They’ve also checked the traffic communication systems in all city vehicles all the way out to Dallas and Austin — everything from ambulances and fire trucks to police cars, buses and service vehicles. We want to be absolutely certain that any time an emergency vehicle approaches an intersection it gets a green signal…”
“And what happens if some crazy guy who decides he wants to get out of town at the last minute tries to run a light when a priority vehicle happens to be going by?” asked D’Angelo.
“Then an emergency signal from the intersection controller will contact the offending vehicle’s management system with enough advance notice to switch off its engine and apply its brakes automatically so that it will stop smoothly before it reaches the intersection,” I explained. “With your permission, we’ll activate that system right now. Legal had concerns about applying it. But now that we have a declared state of emergency…”
Machines Get the Message
“Permission granted,” said D’Angelo. We were inside the OEM’s display, which created the illusion of flying above or through the city from any desired angle, while being able to see it in almost any useful level of detail. Although the brunt of the storm was still at least a hundred miles away and it was midday, the sky had started to turn black and was already sprinkled with flashes of distant lightning.
“How’s your evacuation plan shaping up?” asked D’Angelo.
“Everyone and everything within a hundred miles of the coast has received a prioritized message from our office,” I said. “I — I mean our agents — have tracked the message as it has spread through all the human and machine social networking sites. We estimate that close to 99 percent of the population and 100 percent of machines and systems that could be affected by the storm have received it. People are being encouraged to leave ASAP,” I added. “They can take any route their vehicles suggest. We don’t expect serious traffic jams because all the intersections in the region are networked. Whenever traffic builds in any location, directions go out to vehicle navigation systems in real time to take alternate routes.”
Critters that Keep Floods from Happening
“What are your critters doing about drainage and flooding?” asked the mayor.
“First of all, water demand is drying up rapidly as people leave town, which will maximize the waste water system’s capacity to absorb runoff and minimize flooding,” I said. “During the last few minutes, our agents identified a series of pipeline connections and valve changes that could carry much of the storm’s water through a series of filter installations that were recently activated to help replenish parts of the Edwards Aquifer north of San Antonio. They are negotiating an acre-foot price that will cover the cost of the energy needed for pumping. We estimate that this will reduce potential flooding by 76 percent.”
“And speaking of energy,” I added, “demand is sinking like a stone as the city evacuates. We estimate that in approximately 3.5 hours we will be able to ramp down several of the older power plants. The big off-shore wind parks will take up any slack, and the huge amount of extra power they will generate during the storm will be captured in hardened building storage centers, turned into hydrogen for later use, or distributed to charge the batteries of parked vehicles in San Antonio and Austin. As we speak, software agents within our wind parks are communicating with their counterparts from the National Weather Service and modeling optimum propeller speeds and angles to minimize wind damage and maximize power output…
I went on and on. I could have told her the exact speed of every propeller in every wind park, the exact number of unoccupied parking spaces in every high-rise garage in town, the number of certified emergency medics available, hour by hour and sector by sector, for all of Harris County. I felt such a sense of exhilaration at having so much information in mind that I almost forgot to look at the sky, which had turned blacker and even more menacing. I felt the building shake ever so slightly as the first of Rose’s gusts of wind struck the city.
“I’m impressed with you,” said Mayor D’Angelo as she looked at me inquisitively. “You are so lifelike. Can it be that you are only the OEM’s interface?”