Author: Ted Cuzzillo

Who pays for smart cities?

This post was originally published by TDWI (The Data Warehousing Institute) as a Flashpoint feature on January 12, 2018.

One recent sunny morning there was a traffic jam on Cottage Street, a narrow street within view of my house, aptly named for its width. Commuters heading toward the nearby bridge over San Francisco Bay found themselves inching forward after their “smart” navigation devices had sent them on a shortcut.

The trouble with “smart” tech is that it starts out stupid. Users and neighborhoods suffer inconvenience to train developers’ algorithms—which is one part of to a common question about smart cities: “Who pays?” After all, most cities can’t afford the out-of-pocket expense for the fancy new technology. Instead, cities find other ways to get it and many of those involve compromise.

Financial capital does seem to be available. Smart Cities Financing Guide, published by the Smart Cities Council in 2015, lists 31 potential sources in three broad categories. Two of them put money under city control. Government-based funding includes, for example, general obligation bonds. These raise money from private bond buyers and are paid back mostly by taxes. A second category is called “development extractions,” which show up as tap fees, charged for new utility hookups, and other direct fees.

A third category—public-private partnerships—complicates the whole “who pays?” matter. In such arrangements, vendors provide technology in exchange for market presence (a fertile ground on which develop their technology) and often ownership of the data that results.

Navigating Competing Agendas

Naturally, the public and private sides of the bargaining table come with conflicting priorities. The private side has to satisfy regulatory and funding requirements and perhaps also a few broad mandates from top city leadership. One unspoken mandate is to keep the citizens happy. Citizen groups, at least the effective ones, persistently and perhaps dramatically advocate their various agendas. Better street lighting, better transit, and better protections for privacy and other causes exert steady pressure. Now and then, an ad hoc uprising may object to letting modern travel-direction apps clog horse-and-buggy-era streets.

On the other side of the table, technology vendors want a place to perfect technology, reap data, and build reputations. “[Technology vendors] believe that this will be a big market,” said Todd Walter, in Internet of Things marketing at Teradata, itself an interested vendor. “They all want to sell their stuff to the projects beyond the pilots and proofs of concept.” Vendors have already gone on their own to build or schedule such projects as “smart buildings” in which analytics finely tunes heating, cooling, and other basic functions; “smart” utility grids; integration of interagency emergency systems; data sharing among taxis and public transit; on-street video security; and video toll booths.

The two sides can seem farther apart than a mere table’s breadth. “When public and private sectors get together,” said Peeter Kivestu, Teradata director of travel industry solutions and marketing, “the public sector thinks they’re sitting across from a bunch of sophisticated hustlers who’re going to rip them off. The private sector thinks they have a bunch of public sector guys who can’t be trusted to achieve consistency because of the political and policy flows that go on.”

The Winding Road to Infrastructure ROI

Some vendors avoid any such involvements. Some telecommunication carriers, for example, are funding their own upgrades. So far, it looks like their networks will be the backbone of “smart.”

“[Smart systems] are very chatty,” said Dennis Duckworth, a product marketing and strategy consultant who’s recently worked with telecommunication carriers. “You take those maps and there are millions and millions and millions of [bits transmitted], and they’re taking up a lot of aggregate bandwidth.” During the long retrofit for beefier networks, there will be no shutting down. The rolling-upgrade will be expensive, and the carriers have to monetize the new, beefier networks somehow.

That payback, explained Duckworth, may well start not directly from the carriers but through appliance purchases by consumers. New, so-called “smart refrigerators” will signal to a mother ship, “Hey, my ice maker is faulty. Send a new one!” For that, the consumer will pay a little bit extra even when a “dumb” refrigerator might do just as well. Even the everyday water pipe will come with sensors built in, said Duckworth, whether you can use them or not.

Why do the carriers go to the trouble? They want the data, explains Duckworth. They’ve been watching Google and Facebook reap data that now flows over the telcos’ lines. The carriers want to play, too.

As any streetwise city dweller knows, those who pay call the shots. The only difference is that now the answer to “who pays” may also tell you who controls the technology and the data.

Connectedness / the downside, but upside too?

Robert Kaplan writes about foreign policy, but his warning about connectedness also cuts into our dreams of free-flowing connectedness at home in cities.

From Sunday’s New York Times review of his new book, The Return of Marco Polo’s World:

After the Cold War, many of us naively assumed that the communications revolution would be the vehicle through which the West would spread its values, attitudes and tastes to the rest of the world. We forgot that the revolution worked in the opposite direction as well: that for every Google executive fighting for political liberalization in Cairo, there might also be an alienated young Islamist in the West learning how to build a bomb by reading Inspire, Al Qaeda’s slick online magazine.

Kaplan never loses sight of this fluidity: “The smaller the world actually becomes because of the advance of technology,” he writes, “the more permeable, complicated and overwhelming it seems, with its numberless, seemingly intractable crises that are all entwined.”

That is the world’s reality — crooked, unexpected, ironic and often tragic …

Crooked, unexpected, and often tragic! So much for the fear that connectedness and “smart” will turn cities into bland, Disney-like fantasy.

AI / Apple to acquire autonomous-dog startup DogGone / HomeKit’s “best friend”

Back when autonomous cars first scratched at reality’s doorstep, someone loaded six labradors into a self-driving Prius. It rolled down the freeway and became one of the best pranks of the day. But laugh no more. Datadoodle’s bloodhound reporters have caught wind of a so-far unannounced Apple acquisition that enables self-walking dogs.

One secretive Oakland, CA startup named DogGone has done it. If its trail leads to an actual product, it would be the greatest labor saving tool known to man. It’s certainly what dog owners have dreamed of.

DogGone founder Jake Tipperary said what you’d expect from a startup owner who just cashed in. “We think DogGone is a great fit with Apple’s HomeKit framework…” and blah blah blah. “You can send your dog for a walk anytime, anywhere,” he said. “We’re species agnostic.”

To hear more, we tracked Tipperary to his loft in West Oakland overlooking the Brown Sugar Cafe. “Dogs collaborate … Anyone who walks dogs knows how you know your dog’s friends before you know the humans on the leash.” DogGone includes an option to let dogs bring home friends. Tipperary already has a prototype of a doggie social media app. “They don’t get hashtags.”

DogGone was conceived, he said, as such ideas often do, after a date. Tipperary and his date had had a few glasses of wine on his couch. But then he had to take the dog out for a pee. While he was out, his date fled.

“I said to myself, ‘Hey, the darn cars can drive themselves. Why can’t dogs walk themselves!”

What about poop? Do the dogs pick it up? Tipperary scoffed. “We’re a catalyst for sustainability. Cities have to stop dithering and get with it on urban farming.” He added, “People define poop as a problem when it can be a solution!”

The announcement also seems to give credibility to the often dismissed rumor of a second Apple acquisition in the works: a canine counterpart to AirBNB, DogStay. An Apple spokesperson denied that there are any such discussions. At least not today, April 1.

Smart cities / Cisco’s smart pipes plus Teradata’s scary-smart tech

Cisco’s smart plumbing will feed Teradata’s brains, says last week’s announcement. That sounds like a no-brainer except for what Teradata only hints at.

Start with this: Take Teradata’s new Customer Journey and skew the technology away from large commercial organizations and point it toward cities.

That extra-smart beast wouldn’t just swallow Cisco’s data and feed it back into pretty dashboards. It would ingest any data anyone could possibly feed it and, with machine-like intimacy, take care of anyone who opts in, person by person, moment by moment. Each individual’s likes, dislikes, cravings, emergencies, plans, and tribes might all be sensed and considered from the vast and disparate range of data. It would guide, suggest, nudge, and remind individuals in real time, not sorta real time, with texts, emails, or calls. But only for those who opt-in, I assume.

But opt in to exactly what? It’s still early, and for now I doubt if even the real dreamers among us can see the full possibilities. To glimpse where it could go in smart cities, consider what Customer Journey does in the commercial world. A bank, for example, sees a customer spend an hour on the mortgage calculator and then drop it. It may ask why. It offers help. It might offer calibrated incentives. Or imagine a telco that knows what each customer wants who calls the call center even before rep says hello. The beast watches, knows, predicts, and prompts.

It’s not just the dreamers whose imaginations work on this, it’s those with nightmares, too. I’ve worked with some. These ever-vigilant citizen activists in every city will speak articulately in forums that matter. I know this class, having lived among them and having edited media published by environmental organizations they helped lead.

Here, they at least will have legitimate questions. Who will ensure that the the beast behaves? How can anyone be sanguine, especially with today’s threat to American democratic norms coming from the White House? What’s the cost to our culture of supplanting traditional methods with this stuff?

It’s a reason to use all public means to manage the technology, which won’t be stopped. After all, it’s just technology — no different from oil, electricity, or computer networking. Applied with transparency, the beast can can provide a catalyst for collaboration with which cities thrive.

The seductiveness of Power BI

A CEO I hear from has for years embedded Tableau in his BI platform. Tableau is the best choice by far, he says. Lately, though, a new tool has caught the BI market’s fancy: Power BI, from Microsoft. It’s already a strong contender against Tableau, he says.

One more thing: for individuals with a gigabyte or less of stored data, it’s free. The next higher tier cost about $10 a month. At these levels at least, it’s far cheaper than Tableau.

He describes the tool’s seductive quality: “You get your feet wet,” he says, “then your head wet, your whole body wet, and pretty soon you’re drowning.”

It’s still got major pieces missing, but for a lot of people the price tag makes up for that. “You think, ‘Don’t they see that?’ But they don’t care.”