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IBM Plays SimCity With Portland, Oregon 220

Posted by Soulskill
from the enjoy-your-godzilla-and-wildfires dept.
Hugh Pickens writes "Portland, Oregon will be the first city to use IBM's new software called Systems Dynamics for Smarter Cities, containing 3,000 equations which collectively seek to model cities' emergent behavior and help them figure out how policy can affect the lives of their citizens. The program seeks to quantify the cause-and-effect relationships between seemingly uncorrelated urban phenomena. 'What's the connection, for example, between ... obesity rates and carbon emissions?' writes Greg Lindsay. 'To find out, simply round up experts to hash out the linkages, translate them into algorithms, and upload enough historical data to populate the model. Then turn the knobs to see what happens when you nudge the city in one direction.' One of the drivers of the 'Portland Plan' is the city's commitment to a 40 percent decrease in carbon emissions by 2030, which necessitates less driving and more walking and biking. After running the model, planners discovered a positive feedback loop: More walking and biking would lead to lower obesity rates for Portlanders. In turn, a fitter population would find walking and biking a more attractive option. But as the field of urban systems gathers steam, it's important to remember that IBM and its fellow technology companies aren't the first to offer a quantitative toolkit to cities. In the 1970s, RAND built models they thought could predict fire patterns in New York, and then used them to justify closing fire stations in NYC's poorest sections in the name of efficiency, a decision that would ultimately displace 600,000 people as their neighborhoods burned."
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IBM Plays SimCity With Portland, Oregon

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  • Roadless (Score:5, Interesting)

    by sakdoctor (1087155) on Wednesday August 10, 2011 @08:16AM (#37042576) Homepage

    Tear up all the roads. Replace with rail.

    • by ifrag (984323)

      Ever try that in SimCity? Unless you have some massive money built up it usually fails. Turns out rail is not all that cheap.

      So that leads to the 2nd solution here, raise taxes to balance the budget, resulting in everyone moving away. Carbon problem fixed.

      • by vlm (69642)

        Ever try that in SimCity? Unless you have some massive money built up it usually fails. Turns out rail is not all that cheap.

        That's the unrealistic part about simcity. In the real world, rail pays the govt, not the other way around. That being why the rail infrastructure is in such poor shape in this country... If they invested, the govt would tax the tar out of them, which they can't afford.

      • Original simcity?
        Yes, I always found the reduced maintenance cost of roads, outweighed the negative effects of traffic and pollution.
        Rail only allowed greater land values, and therefore tax income.

      • by Sloppy (14984)

        porntipsguzzardo

    • Tear up all the roads. Replace with rail.

      Heh - they're working on that already [trimet.org].

      (in all seriousness though - the Max is a pretty good deal, *especially* for going downtown).

      • Heh - they're working on that already [trimet.org].

        (in all seriousness though - the Max is a pretty good deal, *especially* for going downtown).

        And that is the problem. To provide the coverage that roads currently do with the convenience that roads to rail will never work. Here in the Twin Cities we have some rail running from downtown Minneapolis to the Mall of America [wikipedia.org] and one from Big Lake down to Minneapolis [wikipedia.org]. They are also building the Central Corridor [wikipedia.org] line to connect Minneapolis to St. Paul. Now this is all fine and dandy if I actually wanted to go to any of these places but I don't and I don't live close to or work close to them either. Add t

      • by geekoid (135745)

        depends, for me to get into Portland from Tualatin(12 milers) can take 60-90 minutes by rails. The drive takes me 15 minutes from my driveway, to parking. (6AM)

        When they started the rail out in Tualatin, I was pretty excited. The I found out it goes toe beaverton, then then you need to transfer.

        Personally, I think an above free way rail system would be the best solution, long term. Yes I recognize it would be expensive, but there are not any problems that haven't already been worked out.
        I would go from Port

    • by garcia (6573)

      I don't live in Portland but where I do live (MSP) that wouldn't work at all. Why? Because of the way the metro area has developed and how the natural landscape exists, it would be costly and ineffective.

      1. Not everyone works downtown and a good many people work in suburbs which ring the entire city. Because we encouraged urban sprawl for so many years it would take twice as many years (due to the economy and long running and currently very high anti-tax sentiment) to make rail happen even to the general ar

      • by David Greene (463)

        I don't live in Portland but where I do live (MSP) that wouldn't work at all. Why? Because of the way the metro area has developed and how the natural landscape exists, it would be costly and ineffective.

        I've worked on Twin Cities transit issues for nearly a decade, so this comes from long experience.

        You've got a few bits of information wrong. Rail has in fact worked very well here in MSP. The Hiawatha line is outperforming every predicted metric. Northstar is underperforming for a few reasons. It was only built to Big Lake, so it misses the large ridership pool in St. Cloud. It opened right as the recession started. Commuter rail is for commuters. People were losing jobs so fewer commuters = lower r

      • Portland is an interesting city. Rail works somewhat well there because they have a number of things going on. First they have the urban growth boundary which is much like what our Met Council has tried to do but seems to have failed at. They also removed the main freeway through/near the down town area that use to run along the river. Finally they have some limiting geography. They still suffer the same problems that the Twin Cities does in that the rail is limited in where it run and when it runs. It gets
    • by bhcompy (1877290)
      And then what? How do you get that pallet of Budweiser from the train to the liquor store on the corner 8 blocks away from the tracks? And then the 30 cases of Bacardi to the Bevmo 6 blocks down a different street? And then the 1 case of King Cobra to 7-11 yet another way? And while your out with your load you get an urgent call to RTB to pick up a load for Staples Center for the game tonight. Unless you're putting rail switching stations at each intersection(unreasonable) and allowing access to privat
  • by mangu (126918) on Wednesday August 10, 2011 @08:17AM (#37042580)

    Just make sure they disable disasters before they play. An alien monster destroying the power plant wouldn't be nice.

    • Disasters / Wars play big part in day to day life for some of the population in a city. I wonder how they've made the reporting of outside disasters quantifiable?
      For The Matrix reference, is the program that controls the sun a little Indian girl?
    • Tell that to Japan!

      They would have loved to turn off Disasters last year!

  • by rbrausse (1319883)

    I can't help myself, "By using the software, Portland confirmed its plan to reduce carbon emissions 40 percent by 2030 would on the whole be a positive outcome." is IMO as news worthy as "By tasking a PwC opportunity analysis, Portland confirmed its plan to reduce carbon emissions 40 percent by 2030 would on the whole be a positive outcome."

    What makes IBM's modelling so special?

    • by Xemu (50595)

      What makes IBM's modelling so special?

      Apparenty they found a computer model that infuses people with a desire to walk and bike:

      After running the model, planners discovered a positive feedback loop: More walking and biking would lead to lower obesity rates for Portlanders. In turn, a fitter population would find walking and biking a more attractive option.

      I find it very hard to believe that this feedback loop exists in real life to any significant degree. If it really was true, the professional sports athle

      • Apparenty they found a computer model that infuses people with a desire to walk and bike

        You haven't been downtown here, have you? Walking and biking is about the only way you're going to get anywhere during a typical weekday... especially after Mssr. Adams decided to go slightly crazy [portlandonline.com] about the bike lanes, which left less room for cars.

        ...and this was after the Max tracks ate quite a bit of asphalt on their own (though this isn't really as bad, considering that the rail is actually a good deal, and actually useful)

        • Apparenty they found a computer model that infuses people with a desire to walk and bike

          You haven't been downtown here, have you? Walking and biking is about the only way you're going to get anywhere during a typical weekday... especially after Mssr. Adams decided to go slightly crazy [portlandonline.com] about the bike lanes, which left less room for cars.

          ...and this was after the Max tracks ate quite a bit of asphalt on their own (though this isn't really as bad, considering that the rail is actually a good deal, and actually useful)

          But if they use modeling to fix traffic woes, then more people will be emboldened to drive, filling the streets back up again.

        • by geekoid (135745)

          Takes me 7 minutes to get from 18th and Quimby* to then portlan building at 5:30 PM, by car

          So, it's not the horrid.

          However the stupid bike line crap is crazy. No one knows what to do, everyone is unsure, and bicyclist still meander all over the road with no consistency.

          *Chowdar!

      • by vlm (69642)

        I find it very hard to believe that this feedback loop exists in real life to any significant degree. If it really was true, the professional sports athletes would prefer walking and biking over driving their cars, and the sport stars seem to be preferring their luxury sports cars today.

        IBM's model must be missing one or more important variables to why people choose cars over walking.

        They're talking about old people. Old people who can't walk, don't. Of course it might take 70 years for changes made today to have an effect on the 80-year olds of the future.

        • by geekoid (135745)

          Actually, setting a hard drive the has had a bloatware deleted from it next to a HD with bloatware to get rid of bloatware would be the Homeopathic approach. You're approach actually does something.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Thugthrasher (935401)

        Apparenty they found a computer model that infuses people with a desire to walk and bike:

        After running the model, planners discovered a positive feedback loop: More walking and biking would lead to lower obesity rates for Portlanders. In turn, a fitter population would find walking and biking a more attractive option.

        I find it very hard to believe that this feedback loop exists in real life to any significant degree. If it really was true, the professional sports athletes would prefer walking and biking over driving their cars, and the sport stars seem to be preferring their luxury sports cars today.

        IBM's model must be missing one or more important variables to why people choose cars over walking.

        You're misinterpreting that. It said that a fitter population would find walking and biking a more attractive option. Meaning more attractive than an unfit population would.

        It's not that most fit people would choose walking over cars, especially not in all situations. It's that a higher percentage of fit people would choose walking or biking than unfit people would. Which makes perfect sense. If I'm going 3 blocks and I'm in good shape, that's not much of a walk. Especially if it's in decent weather

      • I am sure a lot of us will prefer to bike and walk to work...

        But the problem is Work is in the City and Home is in Rural/Suburban areas.
        We move to these Rural/Suburban areas because of less crime and in general people just not caring about anyone else property. I use to live in the City I couldn't even keep flowers planted in front of my house, or garbage can lids on my garbage cans, any attempts to make my area of my community a nicer place to live came with people who tried to make sure it went further do

      • by Intron (870560)

        The Minuteman Bikeway in Massachusetts is heavily used for commuting. If you only allow people to bike on the streets, then fewer people will do it; but if you create a choice then more people will bike. It costs a lot of money to build separate paved bikeways, but still much less than paved roads.

        It's the reverse of the RAND study. You can force shrinkage by removing services or you can add people who want bikeways by building them. Studies have shown that property near bikeways sells in half the time

        • by geekoid (135745)

          Yes, houses next to niceslly cared for parks and pathways sell for more. Big surprise.

          I assume you want the home owners to pay for the bikeways? or do you want the people in homes that gain no benefit to pay to? Maybe a bike tax?

          Something I would be in favor of, actually. A 50 dollar license every 2 years for bicyclist over 18.

      • by geekoid (135745)

        It does, but not for any mysterious reason.

        People decide to rids a bike; they get healthier. As they get healthier, the find bike riding more enjoyable.

        Something which I see a lot. Anecdotal, but you can confirm that6 at any bicycle event.

        We also know that when a sizable enough group starts enjoying things, people who would not have considered it(in this case bicycling) take it up. That's a pretty well document aspect of human behavior.

        I use to bicycle, but then I got a drivers license. heh

  • a) build a slum with nearly zero taxes

    b) Build acrologies with enough police stations around

    • by zget (2395308)
      There isn't acrologies in SimCity.
      • In vernacular usage SC2000, one of the brave exceptions to the law that the sequel is always shit compared to the original, is sufficiently canonical that it may be referred to simply as 'SimCity'. The same is not generally true of the subsequent sequels.
        • In vernacular usage SC2000, one of the brave exceptions to the law that the sequel is always shit compared to the original, is sufficiently canonical that it may be referred to simply as 'SimCity'. The same is not generally true of the subsequent sequels.

          Only if you are younger than 25. For people in my age group the Super Nintendo SimCity is our canonical version. I played the very original SimCity on PC after the SNES one, and was left unimpressed.

          • Only if you are younger than 25. For people in my age group the Super Nintendo SimCity is our canonical version. I played the very original SimCity on PC after the SNES one, and was left unimpressed.

            Actually make that "only if you are younger than 30 or did not have a SNES", SC2000 was released on PC in 1993. Shit I am getting old.

    • by mangu (126918)

      The way I did it was alternating a few years with zero tax with a few years at the top 20% bracket. That way I raised money faster than letting taxes at the theoretically optimum 7%.

      • by delinear (991444)
        In the real world you'd see a lot of migrant workers who move to the city in the 0% years and move out in the 20% years - in the mid to long term that would sap money out of your local economy.
    • I think SIM City tried to be politically neutral So they built in advantages for the two key political ideologies.

      Success is key if the government stays out.
      Success is key if the government has control.

      But being that SIM City is a kids game, It kinda punished a balanced approach to the problem.

  • Computer models don't tell you anything you didn't already know. If you are really lucky, they will tell you things you didn't kow you knew. The problem with this sort of model is that if one of your starting assumptions is wrong, all of your conclusions from the model will be wrong.
    • by goldspider (445116) <ardrake79.gmail@com> on Wednesday August 10, 2011 @08:40AM (#37042748) Homepage

      People put so much stake in computer models anymore that when they don't match up with reality, reality is blamed for the error.

    • by fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) on Wednesday August 10, 2011 @08:46AM (#37042794) Journal
      While I think that your dismissal of models is a bit excessive(in a sense, all of mathematics doesn't tell you anything you didn't assume in your axioms: it just so happens that there is a lot of interesting stuff that you didn't know you were assuming...); but one should certainly be cautious about them.

      Both an accurate model and a shitty model are, in the hands of a suitably skilled consultant's graphic design team, essentially identical in their ability to provide a dense veneer of scientific rationality, 3D-rendered near-future utopias attractively large-format-printed on posters suitable for display at planning meetings, and other charming props to hang on your existing plans and prejudices...

      Things can get particularly ugly if there are large fudge factors in your initial dataset: modeling material stresses, or aerodynamics or such is hard because it is easy to be wrong about difficult stuff, and easy for slight mistakes to cascade(at least, though, there are correct answers that you can hopefully find, even if you don't know them just yet); doing societal cost/benefit analysis is hard because there are lots of factors that don't have quantified costs or benefits, so you can shove the model around just by slapping different price tags on unquantified things.
      • by mangu (126918)

        doing societal cost/benefit analysis is hard because there are lots of factors that don't have quantified costs or benefits

        Welcome to Economics, it's not in vain it has been called the dismal science.

      • I'm sorry if I sounded dismissive. Computer models are very good for developing plans involving things with a lot of complex interactions (like designing airplanes or more fuel efficient cars). The problem is this, if you don't know how to create the design or plan without a computer model, you will not be able to design a computer model that will let you create the design or plan. I can drive a nail through a board to hold that board to another one with a rock, but using a hammer will make it much easier a
      • How can a veneer be dense, and where can I buy one? There is so much that I don't understand about marketing and may need to subcontract out to a specialist.

      • Oh dear gawd, listen up everyone, I'm sure I'll get weird moderations for this, but here goes.

        This is the successor to Facebook if they do it right!

        It combines everyone's favorite Watcher mentality with everyone's favorite 90's game!

        Everyone loads themselves in, some people are "helped" etc. You can watch the entire town buzzing merrily along! Click on people! Their phone sends them a hello text! Click on stores! See what they have in stock. Click on the DMV. Check the lines.

        The possibilities are both endle

    • by geekoid (135745)

      "Computer models don't tell you anything you didn't already know"
      false.
      And the rest of your post seems to indicate about a 2nd grade understanding of models. My apologies to any 2nd graders.

      • All a computer model can do is project the results of the assumptions that were programmed into it. Computer models make it easier (and more practical) to make predictions based on what we know about complex interactions, but if any of the assumptions that are used to program that computer model are invalid, then the results of the model will be invalid. Whether or not the results of this faulty computer model are useful or not depends on how critical the faulty assumption is to those results.
        I'm sorry I r
  • You can add pirates to the sim, and it would still look like the real thing (no, seriously [pdxyar.org], you can). No word on ninjas, though.

    It's cool and all that IBM thought to do a sim of us out here in Stumptown, but I mean, we're not exactly going to be one of them thar model cities [katu.com] that will replicate easily to other towns.

    I mean, hell, couldn't IBM choose something easier to do, like, oh, Des Moines [desmoinesisnotboring.com] or something?

    Now to be fair to the fine folks in Iowa, they do have the Carp Festival [facebook.com], but seriously? IBM would hav

  • by sco08y (615665) on Wednesday August 10, 2011 @08:43AM (#37042770)

    In the 1970s, RAND built models they thought could predict fire patterns in New York, and then used them to justify closing fire stations in NYC's poorest sections in the name of efficiency, a decision that would ultimately displace 600,000 people as their neighborhoods burned.

    So the source is a wikipedia page, which cites this book [google.com], which is a dead end for now.

    Are the authors talking about this study [rand.org]?

    If anyone's got a source that actually backs up the notion that RAND explicitly recommended closing down fire stations in poor areas, or the actual claims that "they're just committing arson anyway", I'm very curious, as that's a pretty wild claim. I've emailed them for comment.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Thanks for that link. It has the "six companies were disbanded" statement on page 22. As the report points out, south Bronx, central Brooklyn, Harlem and lower east side had the highest number of fire incidents(Fig 2) and the highest concentration of existing fire companies(Fig 1). It also showed that simply adding fire companies(in the same fire house!) did NOT reduce the workload for existing companies(top of page 7).
      Finally, their computer models were not designed to predict fire patterns. That e

  • In the 1970s, RAND built models they thought could predict fire patterns in New York, and then used them to justify closing fire stations in NYC's poorest sections in the name of efficiency, a decision that would ultimately displace 600,000 people as their neighborhoods burned."

    Now, maybe I'm just being paranoid here, but that sounds too good to be true. Nobody closes fire stations just because software says they can. But people do wrangle a study until it gives the results they like, and then use it as ju

    • by Intron (870560)

      I've seen "studies" where a consultant has just flat-out asked the person who hired him what conclusion he wanted, then wrote a report justifying the conclusion. Hiring a consultant is a common way to get your idea approved in a large company. The RAND study looks like it was used to justify a slum-clearing plan already decided on by the city.

  • A few tweaks here and there, throw out that historical data (it's obviously flawed), and tweak this historical data (it's flawed but we know how to "fix" it) and I can make the model "prove" whatever you want. Now you can justify your vote with "science".

    I doubt Portland will do anything like have the models predict outcome of projects for the next 10 years, then if they show success use it for the following 10 years. Instead they'll start spending now because "science" says it's ok.

  • Rename the town "DebtCeilingAA+" to activate the infinite money cheat.

  • After running the model, planners discovered a positive feedback loop: More walking and biking would lead to lower obesity rates for Portlanders. In turn, a fitter population would find walking and biking a more attractive option.

    Surely they must have discovered something that's both relevant and doesn't cause people to groan at how obvious it is?

    Anyway, these kinds of models suffer from a fundamental problem that can never be solved. While a lot of the steady-state behaviors of a city may be amenable

  • Provide high speed network to the entire city. More people will stay home because they can work and play from home. Then there will be fewer people on the roads, buses, trains, and in the parks and libraries. Slash the budget for those services like you plan to any way.

  • The City of Portland, Oregon will be extremely disappointed when they find out that holding down the shift key and typing "fund" doesn't work like it did in SimCity Classic.
  • Does anyone have a problem with governments spending money trying to model ways to "nudge" our personal behavior? I'm all for sound city planning, etc... But this seems to dive headlong in to limiting freedoms. I'm not comfortable with any government getting this up close and personal with me. I already have a wife that nags me about exercise...

    • US politicians have been social architecting for generations via the tax code. It's used to create dependents so as to harvest their votes come election time. It's how political parties remain in perpetual power.

      Of course, I would recommend the Fair Tax system for the sole purpose of nullifying this political behavior.

  • So, about the RAND modelling mentioned in TFS... Is there any evidence that their model failed to produce the desired outcome(as opposed to merely being deeply callous and perhaps a bit tactless, two RAND traits that anybody familiar with their game-theory work during the Cold War should hardly be surprised by...)?

    Apparently, the "planned shrinkage" policies were part of a broader 'Urban Renewal'/cost reduction planning strategy by the city of New York. "Stop providing police or fire service to the slums
  • by Dunbal (464142) * on Wednesday August 10, 2011 @09:04AM (#37042998)

    and help them figure out how policy can affect the lives of their citizens.

    You mean that until now, the people who are paid to take decisions for us have absolutely no idea of the potential outcomes of these decisions? That would explain a lot.

    • "You mean that until now, the people who are paid to take decisions for us have absolutely no idea of the potential outcomes of these decisions?"

      That and they don't really care, as long as it gets them re-elected. Intent garners almost as many votes as results, and it's a hell of a lot easier.

  • A computer model will not tell me whether people are fat because they don't exercise or they don't exercise because they are fat. I can see a base problem with the model in the summary:

    More walking and biking would lead to lower obesity rates for Portlanders. In turn, a fitter population would find walking and biking a more attractive option.

    Would a fitter population find walking and biking a more attractive option, or would they find it a less unattractive option? These sound like the same thing, but think of it this way. Two scenarios where you are out looking for a sex partner.
    Scenario One: You find yourself in a position where you have a choice of one of tw

  • All models are wrong - some models are useful.

    Overall I think this is a positive way of trying to improve a complex reality. There was an experiment in 1990 of an imaginary town called Tanaland, and most people failed miserably in improving the long term life conditions for its inhabitants. From http://tersesystems.com/2011/06/10/the-logic-of-failure [tersesystems.com]:

    The setup was simple. Dorner set up a computer simulation of an African village called Tanaland. This book was written in 1990, and so Sim City was not wid

  • by Chemisor (97276)

    The ability to walk to work requires a job within walking distance, which almost never exists. In this, reality seems to follow the SimCity algorithm of job creation - jobs in another city are always better than the ones in yours. I would usually build a rail connection between them all and whenever you switch cities you'd always see an increase in rail traffic coming into the city you're playing. SimCity then tries to give all those commuters jobs in your city. Since there are none, it looks for jobs in th

  • Meanwhile, IBM continues to locate all of its sites exactly as far away from public transportation as possible. The Toronto site, 10 years ago, went so far as to move *further* away from the downtown area.
    • Maybe because they want to have a large building, lower taxes, some green space, and be closer to their employees. My company moved before I joined and now has a larger building, closer to where most people who work here live.
  • A planned economy requires massive quantities of mathematics to be performed.

    And IBM was there to help. The Soviet Union was one of the biggest customers of IBM equipment, all through the 20s, the 30s, the Holodomor, the purges, etc.

  • It took a computer model capable of modeling 3,000 equations to tell Portland that more walking and biking would reduce obesity? How is this not common sense? Are there people who don't think getting more exercise will reduce obesity? Is this a symptom of our society that we need to wait for a scientist to tell us with mathematical formulas and experimental studies that heat burns things and light makes it possible to see things?
  • They pretty much had this 15 years ago with SimCity 2000, when I was in skill. There was a competition to build the the best city with various variables taking into account. There were very strict rules on what you could build, such as none of the futuristic crap like fusion power plants. After you had your city you have a build a model layout of a section of it. This was at least 15 years ago, and using a child's computer game. Why has it taken so long to develop something that obviously wouldn't have take
  • So this model doesn't take into account the Mule (most models don't). You can edit for different circumstances, but it's definitely a "if this were to happen, then this might happen" thing rather than a "if we do this, then this might happen". You can't actual control obesity levels any more than you can control how many roads are in a city.

    Scientist: If we replace roads with walking areas and light rail, we can reduce pollution in the city by 80%, make travel more efficient, and have 30% more green space

  • "People don't like to be meddled with. We tell them what to do, what to think, don't run, don't walk. We're in their homes and in their heads and we haven't the right. We're meddlesome."
    -- River Tam

    Go ahead, turn some knobs. See how it affects the lives of complete strangers.

  • take a bunch of experts
    turn what they say into rules
    guess the coefficients/interaction levels

    multiply it all together

    the result is no more than a bunch of wild guesses with enormous error margins.

    It's hard to model systems even when the basic mechanisms are fairly well understood (e.g. weather, planetary warming). A giant social system where the mechanisms are not really understood at all isn't going to yield to IBM's supercomputer.

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