Uber shares their data feeds with host cities

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This is a very good move for Uber: it costs the company very little to share their data feed with each city where they operate. That data is hugely valuable to the city management. And it is a perfect way to incentivize cities to welcome rather than fight Uber’s presence.

(…snip…) As we have grown, so has our ability to share information that can serve a greater good. By sharing data with municipal partners we can help cities become more liveable, resilient, and innovative.

Today, Boston joins Uber in a first-of-its-kind partnership to help expand the city’s capability to solve problems by leveraging data provided by Uber. The data will provide new insights to help manage urban growth, relieve traffic congestion, expand public transportation, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

(…snip…) This data can be utilized to help cities achieve their transportation and planning goals without compromising personal privacy. By helping cities understand the way their residents move, we can work together to make our communities stronger. Smart Cities can benefit from smart data and we will champion municipal efforts devoted to achieving data-driven urban growth, mobility and safety for communities.

New York-based Placemeter is turning disused smartphones into big data


A city window overlooking the street has always been a score in its own right, what with so many apartments stuck opening onto back alleys and dumpsters and fire escapes. And now, a company wants to straight up monetize the view. New York startup Placemeter is paying city residents up to $50 a month for street views captured via old smartphones. The idea is to quantify sidewalk life in the service of making the city a more efficient place.

“Measuring data about how the city moves in real time, being able to make predictions on that, is definitely a good way to help cities work better,” says founder Alex Winter. “That’s the vision of Placemeter—to build a data platform where anyone at any time can know how busy the city is, and use that.”

Here’s how it works: City residents send Placemeter a little information about where they live and what they see from their window. In turn, Placemeter sends participants a kit (complete with window suction cup) to convert their unused smartphone into a street sensor, and agrees to pay cash so long as the device stays on and collects data. The more action outside—the more shops, pedestrians, traffic, and public space—the more the view is worth.

On the back end, Placemeter converts the smartphone images into statistical data using proprietary computer vision. The company first detects moving objects (the green splotches in the video below) and classifies them either as people or as 11 types of vehicles or other common urban elements, such as food carts. A second layer of analysis connects this movement with behavioral patterns based on the location—how many cars are speeding down a street, for instance, or how many people are going into a store.

Placemeter knows your first question—Isn’t this invasion of privacy?—and insists that it’s taking all measures to ensure anonymity. The smartphone sensors don’t capture anything that goes on in a meter’s home (such as conversations), and the street images themselves are analyzed by the computer, then deleted without being stored. The only thing that ends up saved in the company’s system, says Winter, is the rough data.

Source Atlantic CityLab. This 7 second video is a year old, but it gives a glimpse of the power of the Placemeter Traffic Analysis.

The visualization NYC Taxis: A Day in the Life has gone server-crashing-viral. It was constructed by NYC developer and city-data-wonk Chris Whong (details here). Correction: I’m including Whong’s work here because the reference was published on the Placemeter Blog. As you’ll see in the comments Chris is admired at-, but isn’t employed at Placemeter.

A Great Place to Put Community Health Clinics: Fire Stations

Just in from the Department of the Bleeding Obvious:

In Hayward, the new community health clinic will be co-located on the grounds of the new fire station, which services the Tennyson Corridor, a community with a large population of low-income and uninsured or indigent individuals and families. The Hayward clinic aims to persuade people with limited healthcare access to choose the Firehouse Clinic over the emergency room, especially for preventative care.

To do so, the Firehouse Clinic will keep longer hours (8 a.m.–8 p.m. on weekdays) and guarantee appointment times within 72 hours of a patient’s request. The building, which will be separate from the fire station, will be a 2,400-square-foot, 7–exam room facility. The Alameda County Health Care Services Agency expects 5,000 new patients to be seen at the clinic during its first two years.


The real genius of the idea, of course, is that fire stations are generally under-used facilities (in the sense that firefighters are either waiting around or out doing their jobs), and every city’s got at least one. South Hayward lacks a dedicated adult public health clinic, but the city has a fire station. Now it has both. This is an idea that deserves to catch on.

Image credit: A prototype Firehouse Clinic design. (WRNS Studio)

Mark Hogan on San Francisco’s housing shortage: “Living in a Fool’s Paradise”

“… the current state of permitting regulations for building and the glacial pace of infrastructure projects in San Francisco benefit very few people and risk turning it into a caricature of its former self for tourists and residents rich enough to live in a fantasy, not a living city. If there was ever a time when San Francisco needed to embrace a dynamic, expansive policy for building housing, offices and transportation, it is now.”

San Francisco architect Mark Hogan wrote a very smart and well-informed essay Living in a Fool’s Paradise for the Summer 2014 issue of Boom A Journal of California. In this essay Mark tackled the very prickly issue of how San Francisco became “the most-expensive large city in the United States”.

If you have seen any of the media reporting on San Francisco housing prices you have probably been reading about how city residents want to evict the “rich Google and Apple techies” who are thought to be responsible for making their neighborhood unaffordable. That favored media meme converts the real supply/demand economics into a human-interest story about evicted single mothers and Google-bus protests.

The true story is more complex. Mark moved to San Francisco in 2003, when it was feasible for a young architect to rent an apartment in Lower Nob Hill. Specializing in urban housing, Mark has experienced the inevitable price impacts of extremely restricted housing supply. In this essay he recounts the story of anti-growth Bay Area housing policies and some pragmatic solutions.

San Francisco has had a very strong tendency to try to stave off change through regulation and legislation. Limiting growth artificially usually has many unintended effects, however, as there is no way to prevent people from moving in, and we probably wouldn’t want to if we could. For individuals who want to live in walkable neighborhoods with reliable access to public transportation, there are not that many places in the Bay Area that are as attractive as San Francisco. The city is at or near the top of this list regionally, nationally, and even globally. The demand for such beautiful city living is not going away. It’s only going to increase.

Mark’s analysis reminds us of Ed Glaeser’s Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier. Harvard’s Glaeser has made a deep study of urbanization including supply/demand for space of all types. Mark Hogan offers his first-hand perspective – informed in part by his current position as Chair of the Housing Committee at the AIA San Francisco. You can follow Mark’s thinking at http://www.markasaurus.com and on Twitter @markasaurus.

Image credit america.aljazeera.com


From subsistence farming to prosperity?

Nairobi 2009

[Image Nairobi 2009 ©Corbis, Nigel Pavitt]

For several years I’ve been writing about the development challenge — what policies are the most effective to help Paul Collier’s “Bottom Billion” escape from poverty to our world of prosperity? There are a number of central ideas which I think of in an interdependent relationship: (Industrial agriculture, urbanization, cities) => (Ideas, innovation, economic growth) => (Women control their own fertility, women’s education, population growth stabilizes). This virtuous pyramid rests on a foundation of affordable, low-carbon energy.

The purpose of this post is to offer recommendations for print, audio and video resources on these topics.

A good place to begin is with iconic ecologist Stewart Brand:  Environmental Heresies at MIT Technology Review “The founder of The Whole Earth Catalog believes the environmental movement will soon reverse its position on four core issues.” Rethinking Green (video, SALT lecture). And his 2010 book Whole Earth Discipline.

For a current and informed view of development challenges and progress, see the 2014 Gates Letter “3 Myths That Block Progress For The Poor”.

Are you concerned that population growth is out of control? Then read the recent essay by Stanford professor Martin Lewis “Population Bomb? So Wrong”. Marian Swain at the Breakthrough Institute looks at the current situation for population growth rates, carbon free energy, food supplies and development in Four Surprising Facts About Population: Why Humans Are Not Fated to Ecological Disaster. I’m reasonably confident that you will have fewer population nightmares after watching Hans Rosling in the BBC documentary “DON’T PANIC — The Facts About Population“.

My current favorite introduction to both climate change and energy policy  is Stanford University nuclear physicist and Nobel laureate Burton Richter’s 2010 book: Beyond Smoke and Mirrors: Climate Change and Energy in the 21st Century. It is very accessible to the non-technical reader, and balanced in the presentation of energy policy options. Dr. Richter calls energy-policy winners and losers as he sees them.

For an overview of agricultural reform try Pamela Ronald and Raoul Adamchak’s “Organically Grown and Genetically Engineered: The Food of the Future” [video of their SALT talk], [the book at Amazon]. On agriculture and urbanization, try Why big dams and big ag are good for the poor (transcript of interview with Harvard’s John Briscoe).

Regarding urbanization: ideas come from places where people congregate – in particular cities. Innovation comes from banging ideas against each other. And the central engine of economic growth is innovation – both in the form of new technologies and new institutions (or rules). This is one of the insights that made Paul Romer one of today’s most influential economists. Romer’s “endogenous growth theory” or “new growth theory” is sure to win him a much-deserved Nobel Prize. From Dr. Romer’s Stanford biography:

(…) The contrast between the economics of objects and the economics of ideas is the thread that runs through my work. In graduate school, I wondered why growth rates had been increasing over time. Fresh from cosmology, I was not motivated by policy concerns. It just seemed like an important puzzle. Existing theory suggested that scarcity combined with population growth should be making things worse, but they kept getting better at ever faster rates. New ideas, in the form of new technologies, had to be the answer. Everyone “knew” that. But why do new technologies keep arriving at faster rates? One key insight is that because ideas are nonrival or sharable, interacting with more people turns out to make us all better off. In this sense, ideas are the exact opposite of scarce objects. (See my recent paper with Chad Jones for more.)

For an introduction to Romer’s growth theory I recommend Paul’s chapter “Economic Growth” inThe Concise Encyclopedia of Economics, and the Econtalk interview “Romer on Growth” (if you prefer to read, see the full transcript).

Paul Romer’s current project is Charter Cities, a pragmatic scheme to overcome the development bottleneck of bad rules (for examples of bad rule systems think of Haiti, Zimbabwe, North Korea). I am persuaded that the Charter Cities concept has a chance to evolve into an effective development tool, and continue to find every Romer presentation fascinating. There are two TED Talks so far: Paul Romer’s radical idea: Charter cities (2009) and Paul Romer: The world’s first charter city? (2011 regarding Honduras).

For a 2011 look at cities as idea- and hence prosperity-generators, Harvard’s Ed Glaeser is getting a lot of favorable comment on his 2011 book Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier. Glaeser is the subject of an excellent Freakonomics Radio podcast [MP3], and the London School of Economics lecture of the same title. See also the LSE review of Triumph of the City.

More on cities, ideas and growth: why do cities seem to be able to keep growing while most corporations die? Geoffrey West and colleagues at the Santa Fe Institute have been searching for a common theory which might answer that question. Geoffrey recently gave a thoughtful lecture at the Long Now Foundation (SALT).

Lastly, on the same theme, Steven Johnson’s 2010 book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation is summarized in his TED Talk: Where good ideas come from, and in his recent RSA Animate lecture of the same title. Enjoy!  

Building the Digital City

Building the Digital City, here's an excerpt from this fascinating review by Alejandra Rangel Smith of the multidisciplinary conference Building the Digital City:

…New York City has transformed itself into one of the most dynamic and safest places globally, providing a high quality of life paired with a diverse, well-paid and innovative job market. Part of that high quality of life includes walkable neighborhoods, a 24-hour transit system, great schools, culture and entertainment. As a result, New York City not only attracts talent; sometimes that talent then refuses to move elsewhere. According to Craig Nevill-Manning, Director of Engineering at Google in New York, the company wanted to “desperately hire” some people from New York in 2002, but the potential hires would not move to San Francisco. That, coupled with the fact that Nevill-Manning wanted to move back to New York just as desperately, initiated the move. At first, Larry and Sergei were “dubious that there were at least 15 good people to hire in New York,” but today the 3,000-person office has proven otherwise.

Source: http://urbanizationproject.org/blog/building-the-digital-city


3 great housing policy ebooks: The Triumph of the City, The Gated City, The Rent is Too Damn High

The past year has seen three sharp minds applied to revolutionizing housing policy – I recommend them all. If you are new to this topic you will probably find Ryan Avent’s Kindle Single to be the most approachable.

Ryan Avent: The Gated City $1.99

Matt Yglesias: The Rent is Too Damn High $3.79

Ed Glaeser: The Triumph of the City $12.99

Robocar Oriented Development and the New City

Brad Templeton has done more work on the implications and impacts of robocars/self-driving cars than anyone I know. There are dozens of thoughtful essays on his site, and he is now a consultant to Google’s self-driving car team (can’t talk about that of course – too bad). This longish essay speculates on the impacts of robocars on patterns of city development. 

This essay examines the potential future big changes to cities as a result of robocars. Most of these changes will be inspired by one key element of robocars: because they can drop passengers off, and then go do other work or park themselves densely in more remote lots, the need for large amounts of parking surrounding commercial buildings should diminish greatly, particularly in suburbs and non-central urban areas. If the land devoted to parking can be repurposed, what does that mean for the city?

See Brad’s main robocar page: Where Robot Cars (Robocars) Can Really Take Us. I learn something every time I visit.

Cities are key to global carbon limits

Harvard’s Ed Glaeser was interviewed by the European Magazine. Ed is author of the excellent Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier. There are many important points, including the possibility that development policy could significantly reduce the per capita energy intensity of the ongoing urbanization. The future much richer Chinese peasant could require an energy footprint more like Hong Kong than Houston.

Such an ultradense pathway is not a sure thing – just look at the sprawl of Beijing and Shanghai, which have less than one tenth the density of NYC and half the density of LA. The challenge for the West is to help the Chinese, Indians et al achieve the French path (of 80% nuclear electricity).

Here’s an excerpt on that point:

The European: Could moving people into cities be a sustainable solution for emerging economies dealing with the issues resulting from growth?

Glaeser: From an environmental standpoint it seems very clear that it needs to be done. But you have got to do it in a way that makes sense: Part of the issue with African poverty is that as long as people remain rural, they will be whipsawed by every environmental hazard that comes along. By engaging in subsistence agriculture, there is no way to for them to take advantage of the global trading system. I want to make it clear that I am not an environmental expert, but some regions may end up losing as a result of changes of the environment and others regions may end up benefitting. Areas that now are cold may end up being easier to grow on just as areas that are hot now may end up being worse to grow on. If you are part of the global trading system, you will be able to take advantage of wheat grown in Canada or in Siberia. If you are not, if you are a subsistence agriculture country, then every famine that hits rural Nigeria will leave thousands dead. It is easy to see the benefit that comes from a transition out of agriculture towards a more urban future.

Concerning the environmental impact, it is clear that if everybody remains in rural poverty, there won’t be much going on in terms of carbon emissions. But I don’t think we can possibly hope for that. If you compare countries that are more than 50% urbanized with countries that are less than 50% urbanized, incomes are five times higher in the more urbanized countries and infant mortality rates are less than a third in the more urbanized countries. The path of rural poverty really is awful. But there are different paths and if for example the great growing economies of India and China see their carbon emission levels rise to the level seen in sprawling United States, global carbon emissions will go up by 120%.

But if they stop at the level seen in hyper-dense but still prosperous Hong Kong, global carbon emissions go up by only 25%. So, density is a way of managing growth so that it involves less carbon emissions in the future.

Highly recommended. Read the whole thing »

Detroit’s Decline and the Folly of Light Rail

Harvard’s urban economist Ed Glaeser wrote this little essay last spring. US president Obama and his advisors really need to spend some time with Glaeser. Here’s a fragment of Ed’s concluding paragraph:

(…) The defining characteristic of declining cities is that they have plenty of infrastructure relative to the level of demand. Detroit didn’t need the People Mover—an expensive monorail that glides over empty streets. And today, a Light Rail project is being pitched by the federal government, which seems to have learned nothing from the failures of past follies.

Neither Detroit nor the U.S. suffer from any profound transportation problem that can only be fixed with vast federal spending. The country doesn’t need more People Movers. It needs unleashed, educated entrepreneurs—and they will only be held back by taxes being funneled into fanciful make-work projects in a futile attempt to fix our economic malaise.