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Toronto City Councillor Doug Ford.Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

Could big data save Toronto?

The IBM executive who helped build a city operations centre in Rio de Janeiro, introduced congestion management to Stockholm and created an integrated transit-fare system in Singapore met with City Councillor Doug Ford this week, and talked about a possible partnership with the City of Toronto.

"They want to improve a number of systems in the city, and they've asked us to give them some ideas,"said Guru Banavar, IBM's chief technical officer.

Mr. Banavar said he met with Mr. Ford for an hour on Tuesday, and that they talked about transit, fiscal management, traffic and street lights, and garbage collection, among other issues.

As part of IBM's global public sector, Mr. Banavar travels the world overseeing the company's Smarter Cities initiative, helping municipal governments implement technological solutions to urban issues.

Recently, he helped Rio de Janeiro build a high-tech control room that integrates data from 30 city agencies, allowing its operators to effectively oversee all municipal issues, quickly respond to emergencies and predict the likelihood of major disasters.

Mr. Ford said Wednesday that his meeting with IBM was just a preliminary chat about possible Toronto projects, but that there is no official plan to partner with the technology company.

"I think he has a great program that he's doing worldwide. I think we should embrace this kind of initiative from the private sector," he said. "They're helping cities find inefficiencies and they really caught our attention."

Mr. Banavar is known for embedding himself in a community to get a ground-level understand of local issues.

He said he has visited Toronto only once before, during a ski trip to Blue Mountain. His family got stuck in traffic on Highway 400 and missed their flight.

When asked whether the experience made him want to apply his computer-science background to Toronto's traffic problems, he answered unequivocally: "Yes, absolutely."

"There's so many things we can do in cities. The traffic in Ho Chi Minh City and the traffic in Toronto are different in a lot of ways, but similar ideas can be applied," he said. "It's not enough to see what's going on right now in your city. Real time is too late. You want to see what's likely to be happening in the future and plan for that."

Mr. Banavar said most cities are extremely behind when it comes to capitalizing on the data at their fingertips. Valuable information from video systems and traffic sensors is ignored or thrown away, when it could be used to create predictive models and real-time traffic management programs.

But most municipal governments have a lot of work to do before they can take advantage of this technology. During a recent Smarter Cities project in Minneapolis, it took six months just to get all the city data in an electronic "warehouse."

"The focus I usually hear is we need to do more with less," said Mr. Banavar. "Toronto is a good example of that."

In Rio, the municipality paid $15-million for its operating centre, but Mr. Banavar believes cities see a quick return on investment.

Albuquerque, N.M., recently published a business case model stating that it recovered the investment in its IBM performance management system in three months.

As for Toronto, Mr. Banavar said he has met "a lot of great leaders here," including Mayor Rob Ford's brother.

"Doug, to me, came across as a great leader. He's looking at it as a public management issue that needs to happen. I think he has the view of a private-sector leader."