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Alphabet-Backed Company to Provide Wi-Fi, New Analytics Platform to Smart City Challenge Winner

Alphabet's Sidewalk Labs will use the Smart City Challenge as a means to test out new products like a transportation analytics platform and Wi-Fi hotspots.

Google's parent company, Alphabet, is adding its own twist to the ever-growing grand prize for the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Smart City Challenge: The winning city will receive a brand-new transportation analytics platform along with more than 100 Wi-Fi hotspot kiosks that could become data-gathering centers in the future.

The addition is just the latest in a suite of tech goodies the private sector has chipped in to go along with $50 million to be awarded to one city in June. Amazon is offering cloud services, Autodesk will provide a project planning platform, NXP will give the winner wireless communications modules for connected cars and Mobileye will install a driver alert system in municipal buses.

But the project from Alphabet’s company Sidewalk Labs is something the company is itself only just barely beginning to roll out. Based on the Wi-Fi hotspots installed in New York City through the LinkNYC project, the kiosks installed for the Smart City Challenge winner will be tweaked to help the municipality achieve its goals. That could mean adding sensors to measure things like air quality and noise, and eventually it could mean something like object recognition cameras that watch curbs to tell citizens when and where parking is available.

In short, the kiosks could become a municipal Internet of Things.

They will also support the roll-out of a new product from Sidewalk Labs that it hopes to sell to cities across the country in the future: Flow. An analytics platform meant to support city planning and decision-making, Sidewalk Labs Chief Executive Officer Dan Doctoroff said Flow will harness the power of Google’s traffic data and Waze’s incident-reporting data.

“Flow is a data and analytics platform that is going to enable cities to analyze traffic patterns on specific roads, importantly using aggregated, anonymized data from billions of miles of trips,” Doctoroff said during a conference call on March 17. “It will enable them to look at the types of trips, the neighborhoods contributing to traffic, in order to understand how new transit options, including ridesharing or other mobility services, can reduce congestion.”

The capabilities of Flow, as well as the kiosks, could grow over time, he said. The company could add sensors or develop applications to suit cities’ specific needs.

For the Smart City Challenge winner, that will inevitably involve helping underserved communities. The company’s strategy in deploying the kiosks will be to cluster them in lower-income areas that need help accessing transportation. The data associated with the project should help cities better understand where people have trouble accessing transportation that can get them to school, work, entertainment and everything their city has to offer.

It all boils down to what Doctoroff called the “ground truth in real time." While transportation decisions today are often based on assumptions — like the assumption that a new light rail line will reduce traffic congestion on nearby highways — that can be flawed, Doctoroff said that analytics can give cities a much better understanding of how a given project will truly affect mobility before it’s built.

“I think we could all agree just from our daily lives that there may be no bigger problem than the problem of congestion,” he said during the call. “We’re all experiencing it in almost every city. Traffic is getting worse, our infrastructure is aging, our cities are under extraordinary financial pressure which is probably going to grow over time, and meanwhile we are struggling even more to provide equitable transportation access. Statistics about lower-income Americans in particular having to travel farther and spending more on commuting, putting them outside of the range of opportunity, is something that we have to address. And we know we’re not going to build more roads. It’s harder to meaningfully invest in mass transit, and so we have to do better with what we have.”

Ben Miller is the associate editor of data and business for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.