Google looks to big data to cut traffic and create new product

Google has hooked up with Uncle Sam to fix one of America’s biggest and costliest urban ills: traffic.

On Thursday, Dan Doctoroff, CEO of Google’s urban-innovation subsidiary Sidewalk Labs, joined U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx to announce a partnership between Google and the federal government on a big-data traffic monitoring and analysis system called “Flow.”

“There may be no bigger problem than the problem of congestion,” Doctoroff, a former New York City deputy mayor and former chief executive of Bloomberg, said in a conference 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.

“We’re not going to build more roads. It’s hard to invest in meaningful mass transit. We have to do better with what we have.”

While helping cities solve their traffic problems, Google will be building out Flow, which is expected to be commercialized as a software product. Doctoroff said it would take two years or so to build out the platform.

Google and the Transportation Department have tied Flow to the federal government’s Smart City Challenge, in which the winning midsize U.S. city will receive help from Sidewalk Labs to create what Foxx called “a fully integrated, first-of-its-kind transportation network that uses data, technology and creativity to shape how people and goods move in the future.” San Francisco is among the seven finalists in the competition. Sidewalk Labs will work with the finalists while developing the Flow system.

Doctoroff described Flow as “a data and analytics platform that’s going to enable cities to analyze traffic patterns on specific roads.” The New York Times described Flow as “a traffic management system that will be one of the company’s core software products.”

Using data from cell phones and consumer mobility apps such as Google Maps and possibly Waze, along with roadway sensors and other information sources, Flow will “measure traffic and curb space [for parking] in real time,” Doctoroff said. The data will also “help mass transit adjust in real time to ridership and road usage,” Doctoroff said. Foxx said Flow would help cities identify areas under-served by mass transit.

Google has been working for more than two years on making urban mobility data available to citizens and city planners without compromising privacy, said Doctoroff, who repeatedly emphasized that the Flow data would be anonymized.

Which markets Google will eventually target for selling Flow, and how it would be presented as a product, is not yet clear. The New York Times suggested that Google “is likely to use a subscription-based model in which cities pay for different tiers of data and higher levels of analytic and diagnostic abilities.” However, in the conference call, Doctoroff referred to making Flow’s data-analysis results available to the public. “We’re going to work with the cities to determine the highest-value applications to citizens and planners as we move forward,” Doctoroff said.

The company’s Sidewalk Labs will be addressing other urban ills as well, including cost of living, obesity and fossil fuel dependency. “A lot of urban challenges are interrelated,” Google co-founder Larry Page, chief executive of Google’s parent company Alphabet, said in a company blog post. “For example, availability of transportation affects where people choose to live, which affects housing prices, which affects quality of life.

“So it helps to start from first principles and get a big-picture view of the many factors that affect city life. Then, you can develop the technologies and partnerships you need to make a difference.”


Photo: Westbound traffic on Interstate 80 in Berkeley (AP/Eric Risberg)


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