Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs Launches a Platform for Making the City of Tomorrow

Frank
December 13, 2018
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In October of last year, Alphabet, Google’s parent company announced it was taking its data-hoovering powers out of purely digital realm and into 3-D space. Sidewalk Labs, its urban innovation venture, officially launched a partnership with the city of Toronto, where it would experiment in improving—nay, optimizing—city streets by observing and measuring how people live.

“This is not some random activity from our perspective,” Alphabet Chairman Eric Schmidt said at the time. “This is the culmination, from our side, of almost 10 years of thinking about how technology can improve people’s lives.”

OK, Google: This is IRL.

Now, that work is moving beyond Toronto, to any city that wants to create a frictionless, efficient transportation network. (Who wouldn’t?) Today, Sidewalk Labs is launching its own mini-venture, which builds on its work with cities. “Coord” will do what you’ve been hearing a lot of transportation-adjacent companies say they’ll do lately. It will build the cloud-based platform to integrate the many mobility services that have sprung up around the world’s cities in the past few years—bike-sharing, car-sharing, and ride-hailing—plus more traditional transportation options, like public transit.

For a price, Coord will give the software developers at those companies access to thorough, local, standardized data on things like tolls, parking, and curb space. Critically, info can be shared across cities, instead of siloed in provincial departments. Coordination is the goal. Get it?

“We don’t ourselves operate a mobility service,” says Stephen Smyth, the new CEO of Coord, who moved with a staff of 13 over from Sidewalk Labs. “We’re 100 percent focused on being the connective tissue.” The operating system, if you will.

Much like Ford’s just-announced Transportation Mobility Cloud, Amazon Web Services’ “cities of the future” tech, Siemens’ Intelligence Platform, and IBM’s Smarter Cities, Coord wants to solve a real and deeply frustrating city problem. “Cities use data to regulate taxis, bike-share, TNCs, and signal lights, but each one of those is often kept separate,” says Stephen Goldsmith, who studies big data and government at the Harvard Kennedy School. “The need for a platform that can integrate that data is significant because the amount of data is, of course, greater than ever.” Combining those numbers could lead to serious urban breakthroughs, like finding where services are redundant or not serving residents at all.

But data collection also brings questions. Huge spreadsheets of numbers are valuable, so cities need to ask themselves to whom they’re willing to hand over info, why, and with what limits or safeguards. For now, says Smyth, Coord is dealing in data about infrastructure, not individuals. “A lot of the info we provide today is not about people or their movements,” he says. “It’s about curbs, it’s about tollways, it’s about parking lots—information that’s not personally identifiable.”

A bike-sharing company using Coord, for example, could see its service offered alongside other transportation options within a navigation app like Google Maps: A user could locate a bike, evaluate its cost against competitors’, and buy a ride, all without breaking out a credit card. Or a toll agency working with Coord could push out info on dynamic toll prices, so a driver knows how much her trip will cost before she leaves the house.

Sidewalk Labs already had access to a valuable store of digital info about private parking lots, which it has used to offer drivers paid spots within the Google Maps app, with the goal of cutting down on circling for parking.1 Now Coord has come up with a new tool, called Surveyor, which lets a, well, surveyor use augmented reality tech to digitize data about an entire block’s worth of curb space in just four minutes. The company has already digitized the curbside—and the parking meters, parking signs, and curb stripes that live on them—in key commercial areas in New York, LA, San Francisco, and Seattle.2 That means cities, which often don’t quite know how many parking spots exist within their borders, can quickly access and reallocate those areas depending on need. A bike-sharing station here, a reserved car-sharing spot there.

Of course, any operating system is only as good as applications that live inside it. Smyth says Coord is busy building partnerships with various players, so he’s got plenty of work ahead of him. Still, a tentative welcome to real life, internet company.

1Correction appended, 2/1/18, 4:50 PM EST: This story has been updated to clarify the provenance of Coord’s datasets.
2Correction appended, 2/1/18, 12:50 PM EST: This story has been updated to clarify the cities where Coord has already digitized key commercial curbsides.

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Frank’s source: https://www.wired.com/story/alphabet-sidewalk-labs-coord-city-of-tomorrow/

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