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Business intelligence, analytics help CIO challenge collective wisdom

Business intelligence and predictive analytics are enabling New York City Housing Authority CIO Atefeh Riazi to take the guesswork out of IT investments.

Atefeh "Atti" Riazi says she is a big believer in gut instinct. But when it comes to IT and business alignment, she's convinced that intuition must give way to decisions based on business intelligence, predictive analytics in particular.

After all, CIOs have not exactly excelled at predicting the future, Riazi noted, judging from the profession's black eyes over technology spending that failed to deliver an ROI or customer value.

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"We are guessing the future based on the knowns that we have," said Riazi, CIO of the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA). "The problem is we don't know what we don't know," she said, channeling former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfield.

Corralling IBM's consulting services (pro bono, due to the vendor's interest in creating energy-efficient "smart buildings"), Riazi is using business intelligence and predictive analytics to challenge -- as she puts it -- "urban legends and sacred cows" of public assistance programs. Everything -- from how best to reduce operating costs and increase building efficiencies, to which investments will actually improve the quality of life of more than 400,000 NYCHA residents -- is being examined with BI and predictive analytics tools.

Riazi uses a variety of BI tools, from SAP AG's BusinessObjects and IBM's Cognos and WebSphere, to an Omniscope application by Visokio Ltd. that runs correlations on large data sets on Riazi's desktop. The products, however, are not the point, she insists: "It's about opening minds."

To foster the open-mindedness that analytics and predictive modeling require, Riazi urges CIOs to start adding some statisticians, mathematicians and sociologists to their staffs.

"We have to get out of our comfort zone, which means IT is not about deploying hardware and software. It is about intelligence, which is why IT professionals had better understand how to use data," Riazi said. Analytics is going to take the IT profession "from the place of 'thinking' to what I call the wisdom phase. It is not that 'I think, therefore I am,' but that 'I know, therefore I am," she said.

The challenge for Riazi is to gather data from the vast group of people living in NYCHA buildings. It's the largest housing authority in North America, with some 13,000 employees on hand, but many NYCHA occupants don't have online access. Without that, collecting data about how to improve the authority's aging buildings or reduce crime surrounding the housing areas is difficult, to say the least. Business intelligence can help fill that data gap, however.

Unexpected BI and analytics results

One example where business intelligence and predictive analytics proved helpful and gave unexpected insights is the work Riazi's team recently did on crime. The "sacred cow" says cameras deter violent crime. After running analytics on a decade's worth of information from multiple sources, including police reports, her team's data showed that security cameras do deter vandalism.

However, the cameras appeared to have no effect on violent crime once they had been in place for two months or longer. Only when cameras were coupled with other measures, such as random police patrols and a good intercom system, was crime deterred.

"Here we were, ready to make huge investments on additional camera equipment," Riazi said, "before these findings showed that would not be a particularly useful expenditure."

The most valuable lesson Riazi and her team learned from IBM's business intelligence and predictive analytics practices was the importance of analyzing a variety of elements, many of which at first seemed irrelevant to the authority's core mission, she said. She began applying data from outside sources -- from Europe and the U.S. Census Bureau, for instance -- to figure out what actually does deter crime; and she began considering other factors: the distance of the nearest supermarket, for example, and the proximity of houses of worship. Then the NYCHA data began taking on a different look.

"You kind of start playing, taking some elements out and introducing some strange elements, then seeing where your model [for deducing what deters crime] starts tracking," Riazi said.

Making smart buildings smart with BI

Riazi took advantage of IBM's interest in smart buildings to help vet IT's contribution to NYCHA's push to make its housing more energy-efficient. The accepted dogma, Riazi said, was that if the housing authority put energy performance instrumentation on its boilers, elevators and lighting, it would reduce energy costs.

"The first position I take is, 'Is that correct? Let's prove it,'" Riazi said. "If I ask my chairman for $2 billion to make an investment, will it pay? We have done a lot of work [with business intelligence] in finding where the value comes from."

Project roadmap


  • Atefah "Atti" Riazi joins the New York City Housing Authority.
Early 2010
  • Riazi studies the impact that BI would have on residents' quality of life, IT performance and costs.
  • IBM offers its BI and "smart building" consulting service pro bono.
Summer 2010
  • Analysis is completed and helps redirect IT and business investments strategies.
Next phase
  • BI is used to gain a better understanding of the value of investments to improve future living conditions. -- L.T.

Business intelligence and predictive analytics showed that the "first value" actually comes from having new windows, a roof that doesn't leak and an efficient boiler, she said. "If your boiler hasn't been tuned and it is running at 40% efficiency, it makes no sense to put instrumentation on it."

Moreover, past reviews on the usefulness of instrumentation have not been an exact science. Much of the discussion and many of the pilot programs on using instrumentation to reduce energy costs typically have involved 10 builders or fewer, she said, or less than 1% of NYCHA's housing stock.

In addition, while energy standards for such instrumentation exist, they have not resulted in the software and applications that make a boiler, for example, "talk" to a management console. So, Riazi has assigned her team of software engineers to develop the software.

"We are writing the language -- the handshake from the controller to the building management systems -- based on some of these standards. We believe it will become the government standard -- and when that happens, the North American standard for smart buildings," Riazi said.

A career of ruffling feathers

Challenging the accepted collective wisdom turns out to be something of a habit for the Iranian-born Riazi. In her 20s, freshly armed with a degree in electrical engineering, she helped drive the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority's effort to revolutionize the way New Yorkers travel, with the introduction of the MetroCard. That was a $2 billion project that stretched over some 14 years and ruffled a ton of feathers.

As global CIO at the advertising firm Ogilvy & Mather, Riazi operated in the thick of company politics. A big part of her job was traveling from country to country convincing the firm's business elite that IT transformation could provide a competitive edge. Today, in addition to her job at NYCHA, she is proselytizing for IT transformation on behalf of CIOs Without Borders, a not-for-profit charity she launched, and of which she is executive director. The organization is patterned after the well-known medical humanitarian organization; the CIO version is dedicated to using IT to provide medical information to underserved communities worldwide, she said.

"Thinking outside the box is our job as CIO," Riazi said.

When IBM came in, Riazi said, there was reluctance in the beginning to do just that -- to question the same old sacred cows and urban legends. "Then you realize there is value in just going along and [instead] proving yourself wrong, because in the end, when the data tells you, 'No, you were wrong,' you realize you have to delve into it," she said.

Right now, IT is in the infancy of what analytics can do, Riazi said, and she is first to say that her team is just scratching the surface. But the promise? Breathtaking.

CIO Innovators

The CIO Innovators profile series highlights how CIOs use technology to meet both IT and business leadership objectives. To suggest a leader for a future CIO Innovator profile, email

Let us know what you think about the story; email Linda Tucci, Senior News Writer.

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