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.
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.
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.;