Google unit aims to help US cities fix traffic snarls

A LinkNYC Wi-Fi unit, partially financed by Sidewalk Labs, in New York. The United States' Transportation Department has been prodding cities towards using more technology and has partnered Sidewalk through its Smart City competition to create a soft
A LinkNYC Wi-Fi unit, partially financed by Sidewalk Labs, in New York. The United States' Transportation Department has been prodding cities towards using more technology and has partnered Sidewalk through its Smart City competition to create a software platform to help ease traffic issues in urban areas.PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES
MR DANIEL DOCTOROFF, Sidewalk's chief executive.
MR DANIEL DOCTOROFF (above), Sidewalk's chief executive.PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

It will use tech resources to diagnose problems and improve movement of people, goods

MOUNTAIN VIEW (California) • In a world where taxi rides are summoned with a button and where people have become reliant on mapping applications to get around town, a paradox has emerged: Technology companies know a lot more about a city's traffic patterns than the city officials trying to solve the problem.

On Thursday, the federal Transportation Department announced a partnership with Sidewalk Labs, a unit of Alphabet, the same technology conglomerate that owns Google, which aims to funnel transit data to city officials in hopes of making traffic more bearable and figuring out newer, smarter ways of moving people and goods around the country's urban areas.

The announcement is part of a continuing "Smart City" competition in which the Transportation Department is dangling US$40 million (S$54 million) in grant money in front of cities to prod them into using more technology.

As part of the deal, Sidewalk will work with seven finalists to develop a traffic management system that will be one of the company's core software products. The seven finalists are Columbus, Ohio; Kansas City, Missouri; Pittsburgh; Denver; Portland, Oregon; San Francisco; and Austin, Texas.

"We are taking everything from anonymised smartphone data from billions of miles of trips, sensor data, and bringing that into a platform that will give both the public and private parties and government the capacity to actually understand the data in ways they haven't before," said Mr Daniel Doctoroff, Sidewalk's chief executive, himself a former deputy mayor of New York City.

Sidewalk was hatched out of Google last June as an independent company that will use technology to solve urban problems - yet another example of how the Internet giant has strayed far and wide from its initial mission in online search.

HARNESSING TECHNOLOGY

We are taking everything from anonymised smartphone data from billions of miles of trips, sensor data, and bringing that into a platform that will give both the public and private parties and government the capacity to actually understand the data in ways they haven't before.

MR DANIEL DOCTOROFF, Sidewalk's chief executive.

The company is based in New York and was conceived by Mr Doctoroff, along with a team of Google employees led by Mr Larry Page, one of Google's founders and now Alphabet's chief executive.

In June, Sidewalk announced that it would help finance a company called Intersection that is installing thousands of Wi-Fi kiosks across New York City, but the company has otherwise said little about its aspirations or what kinds of technologies it might develop.

Thursday's announcement gave some insights.

As part of the Transportation Department competition, Sidewalk will work with the seven finalists to develop a software platform called Flow to help cities diagnose and fix congestion problems.

Flow looks a lot like Google Maps, and the search giant's mapping data is at the core of the product. But the idea is to help cities dive deeper.

The Flow system makes inferences about where people are coming from or going, so planners could tap on a congested road segment and find out what kind of traffic - morning commuters, for example, or weekend traffic to a baseball game - was contributing to the problem.

They would also be able to run virtual experiments such as how much traffic would be reduced if they added a bus route or car pool lane along the choke point.

Sidewalk is still figuring out how it will try to make money from the system, but it is likely to use a subscription-based model in which cities pay for different tiers of data and higher levels of analytic and diagnostic abilities.

Mr Doctoroff said this idea of partnering - with private companies, but also governments - will be central to how he builds Sidewalk.

The finalists will now work with each other and Sidewalk to fine-tune their proposals, which, in turn, will help Sidewalk figure out what kinds of features or analytics to build into the Flow system.

In addition to the US$40 million cheque, the eventual winner, which will be announced in June, will receive various perks like use of the Flow system and 100 Wi-Fi kiosks that will provide free Internet in parts of the city.

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 19, 2016, with the headline 'Google unit aims to help US cities fix traffic snarls'. Print Edition | Subscribe