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Can the tech giants plan our cities?


In a promise to bring traffic jams and pollution to an end with their algorithms, Google, Uber and Amazon are teaming up with public authorities to improve urban mobility. But the arrival of the GAFA tech giants on the scene is not without risks for our privacy. 

It’s a world first. A tech giant is creating an entire neighbourhood. Toronto has decided to award the Quayside waterfront transformation to Sidewalk Labs, the Google sister company dedicated to urban innovation. Toronto’s former industrial wasteland is poised to become the first “Google Town”, a smart city model sporting an array of sensors that monitor real-time air quality, sunshine levels, and especially traffic conditions. The collected data will for example be used for heating the pavement in the winter and adjusting the width of bicycle lanes depending on the time of day thanks to LED technology. Public transport and bike sharing offerings will also be adjusted in real time. Clearly, private cars will not have much place in this futuristic neighbourhood. The Google family plans to turn its new city into a living laboratory where it can test autonomous shuttles and delivery vehicles manufactured by Waymo, another Google sibling. The first residents could move into the area as early as 2022. Quayside is but the latest example of the GAFAs’ gradual conquest of the urban frontier.

Google and DOT join forces

Three years ago, new-generation phone kiosks began to appear on the streets of New York City under the Google-backed LinkNYC initiative. The sensor-equipped hubs offer device charging and, more importantly, free Wi-Fi, but users must be willing to accept that their browsing data will be stored by Google. Eventually, there will be 7,500 Links installed in the metropolitan area. Data collected by the kiosks provide the authorities with real-time knowledge of street conditions, such as air quality and pedestrian flows. But the public-private partnership goes beyond LinkNYC.

In 2015, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) launched the Smart City Challenge to help seven American cities to modernise their transport infrastructure, in collaboration with Sidewalk Labs. It looks set to be a win-win partnership: cash-strapped local governments on the one hand, struggling to maintain ageing roads and transit systems, and the tech giant offshoot on the other, testing out its big data transport platform, Flow. The finalist cities in the challenge – Austin, Columbus, Denver, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Portland and San Francisco – have free access to the Flow platform. The goal is to collect a trove of data from sensors embedded in the ground or on the LinkNYC kiosks, as well as from the smartphones of Google users. The data can then be used to propose solutions for improving mobility and traffic flows.

The uberisation of transport

Uber is another company that is upending the transport industry. No longer content to be just an alternative to the taxi, the start-up began expanding into the public transport sector three years ago via joint initiatives with local authorities. In Dublin, California, where bus service was shut down due to low ridership and high costs, users can now order an Uber, knowing that the city will partially subsidise the fare. A ride costs between $3 and $5, compared to $2 for a bus ticket. The solution requires users to have a smartphone, which automatically excludes a certain category of the population.

Uber has also embarked on a charm offensive in the cities of Boston, Washington, D.C., Sydney and Manilla, offering them free access to mobility data from its Uber Movement platform. The start-up has understood the importance of public-private partnerships. Its ambition is to become a major player in tomorrow’s mobility landscape, where the private car will gradually be replaced by vehicle fleets that are autonomous, electric and shared. In Scandinavia, Uber has joined the Drive Sweden programme aimed at preparing the country for the autonomous era and, in Pittsburgh, it has resumed testing its self-driving cars. Uber isn’t alone; all the tech giants want a piece of the autonomous car pie. Apple, Google, Amazon, you name it, are all diving into a market that could be worth $2.8 trillion in 2030.

Who owns the data?

According to the research and advisory company Gartner, 50% of the citizens of large cities are now sharing their data with the Smart City programmes. This mine of information leads to a greater efficiency in mobility services in particular. But the GAFAs intrusion into every aspect of our lives and cities also raises issues related to data ownership and its commercial use. In Toronto, SidewalksLab has so far committed to ensuring their anonymity.

Photo : The Toronto Archives from 

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