Alphabet, the parent company of Google, announced it was moving its data-gathering powers out of the purely digital realm into the physical world. Its venture for urban innovation, Sidewalk Labs, launched an official partnership with the city of Toronto, where it would experiment in optimizing city streets by tracking data on how people live and move.
“This is not some random activity from our perspective,” Alphabet Chairman Eric Schmidt said. “This is the culmination, from our side, of almost 10 years of thinking about how technology can improve people’s lives.”
That effort to create an efficient transportation system is moving beyond Toronto onto any interested city. Sidewalk Labs is starting its own mini venture, which expands on its work with cities called Coord. This project intends to develop a cloud-based platform to integrate the multiple mobility services that have popped up in the world’s big cities in recent years- bike and car sharing, ride-hailing, and event traditional infrastructure like public transit.
Coord will, for a price, offer software developers at those companies access to data that is thorough, local and standardized measuring factors such as tolls, parking, and curb space. The goal is to coordinate information so that it can be shared across cities instead of stored up in provincial departments.
“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.”
Similar to Ford’s recently-announced Transportation Mobility Cloud, Amazon Web Services’ “cities of the future“. Siemen’s Intelligence Platform, and IBM’s Smarter Cities, Coord wants to solve some simple frustrations of city life.
“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.”
But data collection also creates questions. Because data is valuable, cities need to decide who they will be willing to deliver their information to, and why. There has yet to be a decision about the limits and safeguards of this as well. Smyth said that Coord is not dealing with individuals, but gaining data about infrastructure, at least for now.
“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.”
For example, say there is a bike company using Coord. It could see its service offered beside other transportation choices in tools like Google Maps. Users could compare prices and book a bike all without punching in any credit card information. Coord could work with toll agencies to get dynamic toll prices so that a driver would know the cost prior to leaving the house.
Sidewalk Labs had access to a valuable store of digital information about private parking lots, which it has utilized to offer drivers paid spots in the app for Google Maps, with the goal being to cut down on time spent circling for parking.
Now Coord has created a new tool named Surveyor, which lets someone using augmented reality tech render data about a block’s worth of curb space digital inside of four minutes. The company has a digitized curbside already, not to mention parking meters, signs and curb stripes in New York, LA, San Francisco, and Seattle.
That means cities, which are often unaware of how many parking spots they have, can quickly get information and allocate resources as needed.