Big Data

Alphabet's Sidewalk Labs hopes smart cities will go with its Flow analytics platform

Sidewalk Labs is partnering with the Dept. of Transportation and Smart City Challenge finalists to create an analytics platform to improve transit and engage citizens.

Image: iStock/polybutmono

Around the world, urban planners hope analyzing data from mobile devices will help them manage transit better, making much more efficient use of existing roads, subways, and buses. As more sensors are installed in lights, meters, roads, buildings, and a growing Internet of Things, the thinking goes, cities will gain unprecedented insight into how their residents are traveling and where they are going.

Achieving those goals by combining sensors and data analytics isn't a novel idea, but it's quickly becoming a reality around the world.

SEE: The world's smartest cities: What IoT and smart governments will mean for you

Technology or telecommunications companies including IBM, Cisco, and Verizon have been pitching sensors and data analytics as a solution to reducing urban congestion and related air pollution for years.

At the end of 2015, AT&T Mobility Labs partnered with the University of California at Berkeley and the California state transit authority to reduce traffic congestion by analyzing location data from the cell phones of drivers.

Sidewalk Labs to experiment with Flow

Up until this week, there's been limited insight into how Sidewalk Labs, a startup created by Google (now Alphabet) in 2015, would be participating in the growing ecosystem of vendors, nonprofits, and foundations focused on helping cities to solve urban problems using modern technology.

When Alphabet CEO Larry Page announced the creation of Sidewalk Labs in a post to Google Plus in June 2015, he acknowledged the progress that cities had already made in "developing dashboards to measure and visualize traffic patterns, and building tools that let residents instantly evaluate and provide feedback on city services."

Now we know a bit more about how they're planning to enable improvements in city life: Sidewalk Labs will create a new data analytics platform with cities to reduce traffic congestion and associated air pollution, and deploy Wi-Fi kiosks with sensors in them to provide connectivity and collect data.

"We will build a platform for ingesting lots of different kinds of data that will enable users to understand the ground truth in real-time," said Sidewalk Labs CEO Daniel L. Doctoroff.

"That data can come from billions of miles of trips, sensors monitoring traffic, and third-parties, if and when we have access to it, the cities' own data. It will be fed into an analytical engine that will map assets against demand and offer dashboards for parking and permitting."

Eventually, Doctoroff envisions Flow acting as a "transportation coordination platform" that will ingest anonymized data from bilions of trips on Google Maps and Waze, sensors in kiosks on city streets, and telecom companies.

Flow could even help parking availability in real time, providing insight into changing conditions and demand, and route drivers to available parking or warn them when parking is not available. San Francisco's installation of smart parking meters has already enabled that city to start experimenting with this kind of data at a smaller scale. Doctoroff said Sidewalk Labs hopes to play a role in helping mass transit systems to adjust to ride demand and road usage in the future.

That potential future isn't here yet, though, and won't be until much more physical infrastructure has been deployed. Sidewalk Labs is just beginning to build the technical infrastructure, integrate data into it, and think through a software-as-a-service business model. The kiosks in its system will be modeled on those in LinkNYC, the free gigabit Wi-Fi service that New York City began installing in December 2015.

Flow is part of a public-private partnership

Flow will be co-developed in partnership with the U.S. Department of Transportation and the seven finalists in the Smart City Challenge. The finalists — Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Denver, Kansas City, Missouri, Portland, Oregon, Columbus, Ohio, and Austin, Texas — are competing for $50 million in prize money to make their vision for a smart city real ($10 million of it will come from Vulcan Inc., which oversees the business and charitable efforts of Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen). Sidewalk Labs plans to install more than 100 of the kiosks in four neighborhoods in the winning city; the winner will be announced in June 2016.

"Transportation is deeply connected to opportunity," said Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx, in a call with the media yesterday, noting that while many cities see advantages in urbanization, cities are saddled with concentrated growth, shrinking revenues, and increased demand.

According to his department's estimates, low income Americans spend one quarter of their income on transportation costs. In that context, Foxx said that the second phase of the challenge must focus on technology that can transform people's lives.

"Empowering disadvantaged communities to take advantage of technology and innovation is a key component of the Smart City Challenge," he wrote, in a blog post at Transportation.gov. "By embracing smart technologies and concepts that eliminate the digital divide, strengthen connections to jobs and remove physical barriers to access, we can strengthen communities throughout the country."

Doctoroff echoed Foxx's concern that lower income Americans have to spend more and travel farther to work, out of range of economic and educational opportunity.

"We need to provide equitable access," he said. "Traffic is getting worse, infrastructure is aging, and cities are under extraordinary financial pressure."

Secretary Foxx emphasized the partnership with Sidewalk Labs is not going to be enough to make up funding shortfalls for roads and bridges.

"It's not adequate against chronic under-investment," he said, "but what we're introducing is the possibility of technology innovation to solve some of our mobility challenges differently. This could be a way to flatten the curve of the infrastructure deficit a little bit."

Privacy matters

In answer to a question about privacy (akin to those questions raised by the NYCLU), Doctoroff said that the LinkNYC kiosks currently installed in New York City do not have environmental sensors — yet — and that they would not install them until the City of New York or other municipalities decide to do so.

"Privacy is clearly a defining issue," acknowledged Doctoroff, stating that Sidewalk Labs would be open about what they were doing.

Even if the Federal Communications Commission's proposal for privacy rules for internet service providers isn't voted into force, cities and Sidewalk Labs will need to take care not to surprise residents about data collection or use.

On that count, Doctoroff and Foxx emphasized kiosk sensors would not collect individual data but rather anonymized, aggregated data.

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About

Alex Howard writes about how shifts in technology are changing government and society. A former fellow at Harvard and Columbia, he is the founder of "E Pluribus Unum," a blog focused on open government and technology.

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