When seven public information technology professionals gathered in Sunnyvale, Calif., on Feb. 25 to talk to Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, they cautioned potential vendors that they often operate on tight budgets and need to demonstrate a tangible return on investment before they are able to justify funding a project.
Another piece of advice for vendors: Don’t try to offer the same service as established companies.
At that event, they had the opportunity to hear from five startups who are all working to build themselves up as unique service providers to government.
1. Knightscope — IoT as Security
If you’re trying to break into a Knightscope-protected building, what you’ll see are a bunch of conical white robots sitting around. But there’s a lot more going on behind the scenes.
In fact, the 300-pound bots themselves only serve to provide a physical presence, according to Knightscope chairman Bill Li. Most of what they do could be handled by mounted sensors and cameras — watch parking lots and doors, listen for certain sounds, gather real-time data. It’s what the company does with the data that adds a value proposition.
That is, the bots are the beginnings of an attempt to use the Internet of Things (IoT) for security purposes.
An example: A Knightscope robot sees two people lying on the ground in the parking lot. It checks the time — noon. It notices the temperature is close to 100 degrees, and concludes that it doesn’t make much sense for people to be lying on the ground in the parking lot. It hears popping noises nearby. A person monitoring the situation can see all of these things and respond to them, but Knightscope will also alert the customer about the situation.
Knightscope offers analytics and real-time monitoring of the data its bots collect, not only giving customers the ability to monitor what they want to protect, but possibly giving them the ability to predict crimes in the future.
In the short-term, however, Li said they offer one very tangible benefit: cost reduction. While a private security guard costs about $25 per hour, Knightscope offers its machines at $6.25 per hour.
2. Freewire Technologies — clean, easy power
Freewire’s big push at the moment is its Mobi battery service, which gives electric vehicle drivers the ability to request a recharge where their car is parked instead of searching for a station.
But an emerging service of the company has much more direct links to civic use: generators. The company is beginning to offer generators capable of 12 kilowatts of continuous output, meaning it could provide two kilowatts of power for 12 hours or eight kilowatts for three hours.
Because they are essentially just big batteries, they run quiet and don’t emit any fumes or greenhouse gases. Freewire Chief Commercial Officer Jawann Swislow gave an example of one of their uses: A customer was hosting an event and found at the last minute that they would need a government permit to run a diesel generator. They didn’t have time to get that permit before their event, so they turned to Freewire for a generator-equivalent that they didn’t need a permit to run. Such a service could also be utilized in the aftermath of a disaster.
3. Factom — a public ledger for government work
Blockchain is such a new technology, it’s not quite clear yet what it might do for government.
The basic concept goes like this: Records and data that are shrouded in secrecy can be manipulated. But take those records and release every detail about them to the public — including what changes have been made — and suddenly anyONE can keep track of the legitimacy of the information.
The concept comes from the digital currency Bitcoin, where it’s used to verify transactions, but companies like Factom are beginning to explore its applications in government. So far much of that work has been done internationally, in places where government is under pressure to improve transparency. According to Chief Marketing Officer Tiana Laurence, Factom has been helping to track land records in Honduras and is now working in China to help municipalities verify each others’ data as they implement smart city projects.
While inter-government data verification might be an application in the U.S., Laurence said the “pain point” likely isn’t high enough in this country to justify that use. Rather, there is a bevy of other possibilities — concepts include verifying election results, tracking intellectual property and ensuring that government services are delivered appropriately.
Some of those could come up against privacy concerns. Since blockchain involves making data accessible, government could have trouble applying it to systems that could make use of it but rely on sensitive information about constituents.
Factom has an answer for that: hashing. The process involves encoding sensitive information and submitting it to the blockchain. Factom can then provide basic verification that the entry exists without revealing the information, and users can present the complete record to people who need to see it.
4. Swiftly — a closer look at transit
With a mobile application that gives users multiple choices for how they might travel from A to B — ride sharing, bicycles, public transit, etc. — Swiftly is but one group of many trying to make multi-modal transportation easier for the average person.
But that’s just one side of the company’s operations. It’s also expanding into government work in a few ways. By collecting anonymized data from its users and supplementing it with public transit data, Chief Executive Officer Jonny Simkin said his company can improve the accuracy of transit arrival predictions by about 20 percent — without having to pay for GPS trackers. Because it allows users to report incidents, it also quickly notifies them about any collisions or other incidents that might slow travel in certain areas.
By taking all that data and tracking it across time, the company can also give transit officials a good look into which routes and individual stops have the most problems running on time, allowing those officials to target improvement efforts to the places most in need.
5. Signal Labs — supplementing traffic infrastructure
Traffic infrastructure is fixed, planted, hard to change — and it costs money. But what if one could use data to help give a driver more location-specific information without having to install new signs?
Signal Laboratories has an application — living on smartphones for now — meant to give drivers more information about the places they drive than the signs on the side of the road can. The application, which Signal Labs Founder Hari Srinivasan said can be displayed on a phone mounted on a dashboard so as to minimize driver distraction, collects data on the configurations of intersections, crashes and more. The app can also push out information to drivers about nearby collisions, “unofficial” pedestrian crossings and two-way intersections.
Srinivasan has two common use cases for the app. The first would be a warning to a driver that an intersection they’re approaching has a high number of collisions. The second would be a notification to a driver that there’s supposed to be a stop sign at a coming intersection, even if someone has knocked the sign down.
The idea is still in early stages — it hasn’t been fully launched yet — but Srinivasan said that he envisions selling the service to fleet operators that are constantly sending drivers out onto the road.