Making cities smarter with data
Welcome back to What’s NEXT, the podcast exploring the future of technology. In this episode, I talk with Head of City Relations Adriana Young about how Stae helps cities integrate data from any source and make sense of the millions of data points being produced every day in real time.
Ryan Lawler: I’m here with Adriana Young, from Stae. Adriana, tell me a little bit about what Stae is.
Adriana Young: Sure. Stae is a tool. It’s a platform that cities can use to manage their real time data. Essentially, it helps cities kind of wrangle, ingest and then publish all the data that is available now, which wasn’t available even five or ten years ago.
Ryan Lawler: Okay, and what’s your role within Stae?
Adriana Young: I am the Head of City Relations which means that I talk to cities. I talk to cities and I help align our product with the actual day-to-day needs and problems that are arising for cities. Then I help tell stories about the ways that we’ve worked with cities in ways that can inspire other cities and other vendors too. The great thing about the city space, it’s very holistic and pluralistic. Even though you’re working with one city and one department, the kind of learnings and experience that you have that you’re able to generate are things that are applicable to lots of different places, and professions really.
Ryan Lawler: Cool. How did you get started with Stae? What was your journey to this point?
Adriana Young: I had always been interested … I had actually started working as a community organizer, and had started my own school for undocumented immigrant families, right when I was actually still in college. I started realizing that any social issue, any community issue is linked to our actual built environment, right? The problem that I was trying to solve is helping people learn English and use language as a tool for empowerment. But, a lot of their issues were actually having to do with advocating for their right to the city. Their rights at work, their rights to transport, their rights to recycling, to different services. Then gradually, I realized that, “Wow, I think I’m really interested in the city scale, and really tackling our social issues from the lens of design and planning.”
Adriana Young: I studied Urban Design at the London School of Economics. Then I realized that I didn’t want to work in planning because I actually … I hate rules. I hate rules, and I hate formulas. I think that our problems are so much more complex, and so human-centered. A lot of the solutions that we have are just that, they’re solutions, so it means they’re very focused on something that’s formulaic. Technology itself is often pitched as a solution, right? When we talk about different products, it’s solutions. I’m not interested in solving the city. I’m interested in partnering, and listening and understanding, and empowering different actors in the city to have a more effective relationship with each other and with the built environment.
Ryan Lawler: I’m curious how we take technology, and we take sort of, this very audacious goal of helping people, and how technology and data feeds into helping to solve for that goal.
Adriana Young: Sure. I think that technology actually doesn’t solve problems. Technology in itself inherently, it’s just a tool, right? You still need people to use the tool, to apply it, and to apply their own human intelligence, collaboration, problem solving, right? Using technology as a different kind of agent or material, right, that you can bring to intractable problems, a lot of the times. Very clearly, with Stae, it’s just a tool for cities to actually make visible and make accessible, their data. You know that a lot of city data is not in the hands of cities? It’s trapped in vendors, or maybe it’s in the city, but it’s actually not in a format that people can use and share. We’re really just leveling the playing field. It’s almost like we’re creating this foundation for cities to be able to use what is theirs. Really, to level the playing field with technology vendors that aren’t always forthcoming and transparent about the data that they do have that actually belongs to the city.
We’re kind of neutralizing and creating this kind of, neutral infrastructure.
Ryan Lawler: Well, maybe we take a step back and we talk about the types of data that these cities are producing and collecting. What is visible, and what is not, and what they can use and what they can not.
Adriana Young: Yeah. Actually, we were just last week, in the city of Detroit. The city of Detroit has an open data portal, right? They have lots of data sets that they publish and they make available online to the general public. There’s data on 311 calls, 911 and crime, air pollution, bike lanes, building permits, buildings that are going to be demolished, etc. All those kinds of data sets, they’re all kept in different ways, so the person who’s keeping that data set on building permits, maybe is not the same person, and it’s not in the same format as the data on the buildings that are going to be demolished, essentially. What we do is, we make all those data sets be able to talk to each other, make them uniform, and very easy to map and visualize.
The story that I wanted to tell was that, when we were preparing to go to Detroit as part of this conference on public life, and public design. I was just doing some quick research on Detroit data, and I came across this data set that was generated by an Uber driver, okay? So, there’s this young man named Viranell, and he’s an Uber driver. He also works at Trader Joe’s. He had taken it upon himself to document almost every single public artwork, every mural, and now sculpture in the streets of Detroit. He had actually made a website, and that website was like pulling from a spreadsheet, but that spreadsheet and that data set wasn’t technically city data, right? It was a citizen, individual citizen who had this passion and interest, and went around the city because that was something that was important to him, right, that defined his city, was this artwork.
What we did is that we ingested it and made it interoperable with all the other Detroit open data sets, so now you can actually look at a map of Detroit, you can see where murals are, where building permits, where new buildings are coming up, where buildings are slated for demolishment. Where people are making complaints about noise, about graffiti, about crime, etc. That’s kind of the city data story that we’re trying to always seek and support. When citizens themselves can collect data, and then we can kind of elevate it, and integrate it alongside other city data, then there’s no chance that things can be siloed, or specific viewpoints of community groups or individuals can be dismissed as not necessarily evidence based or legitimate.
Ryan Lawler: Right, because all the data is there. There’s been a lot of talk about smart cities, and sort of, the future of urban living. A lot of studies about how, I think 70 percent of all people will be living in cities in 20, 30 years, 2050.
Adriana Young: 2050 … yeah, I think it’s 2050, yeah.
Ryan Lawler: What does it actually mean to be a so-called smart city?
Adriana Young: Yeah, it’s funny because sometimes we have calls with cities, and they ask us that. They’ll ask us that very question. “If we get Stae, will this make us smart?” The answer is, no. Definitely not. You can’t buy a product and it’ll add intelligence automatically into the way that you operate and run your city. I think the smart city movement has not been really a movement. It’s been a lot about … It’s about products, right? Essentially the promise of the smart city is that there is going to be no errors. There’s going to be ultimate efficiency. Algorithms will decide how to distribute resources and adopt the city plan. It’ll be a city optimized for efficiency, but the question is, is that a city you want to live in? Do people wake up every morning and think, “I can’t wait to make my day more efficient, and my whole future is going to be planned around efficiency.”
There’s a lot of other complexity and richness to city life, and what draws 70 percent of our planet to be in an Urban environment is not always about efficiency. It’s definitely not about handing over decision making to algorithms, right? I think the main reason why people move to cities is for personal agency, right? It’s about opportunity, connection, diversity, exposure. Those are the things that we’re trying to champion and make sure that we empower in our platform.
Ryan Lawler: Okay. When we talk about efficiency though, I think that there are huge advantages to that. When you think about trains running on time for example, which has been a big problem in New York, keeping infrastructure up to date, and those types of things. Is that something that Stae helps in those types of things. Is that something that Stae helps to solve for or at least provides information around?
Adriana Young: Efficiency is just one part of the solution. Cities want to get ready for the future, they have to get ready for all the people who are coming and the new jobs that haven’t been created yet and the new kinds of ways that we’re going to be moving around. So yeah, the first thing that they have to do is they have to take stock of how their current systems are running, how their infrastructure works, what are the improvements they can make, how can they optimize and make more efficient their services? That’s just one step. More fundamentally they have to change their relationship with data, right? Cities need to be able to make more evidence based arguments and plans. It’s not about buying a product or solution, it’s changing the way that cities have a relationship with data so that they know they have the right to it, number one, which is a big deal actually, that we can’t really overlook.
Cities get roped into contracts with vendors and look at what happened with Airbnb and Uber and Lyft. That was, those are businesses that are benefiting and are only able to exist because they’re using city infrastructure. But why are cities in the position now where they have to be begging for that data and almost to the point where they were going to be buying it back from those services? So the data is theirs. They have to be able to evaluate things neutrally so it’s not just the loudest voice in the room and they need to have data that is going to help over time. So that they can make better decisions for the next 30 years.
Ryan Lawler: Sure. So your customers are the cities themselves, is that true?
Adriana Young: Yeah. We work with cities and also real estate developers.
Ryan Lawler: And when you talk about working with the cities or trying to convince them to become a customer, what are you selling to them? Like what’s the vision for what they can do with this data?
Adriana Young: Yeah. So it’s three things. One is an opportunity to evaluate and iterate. So the way that Stae works is that you can ingest any data, you can look at it, you can map it, you could look at it alongside other types of city data and you can see is this the right data, is this valuable? So a lot of small to mid sized cities that we work with, they don’t have infinite budget so they can’t afford to take the risk on buying a solution that’s actually not going to move them forward. So we help cities evaluate different kinds of products and services. We also do hardware prototyping, so we’ll make a small production run of GPS trackers for emergency service vehicles or sensors to show when parking spots are filled are empty. So cities can start to have a more kind of playful prototyping, iterative approach to these kinds of solutions and not feel like they have to commit to something and get locked down into these contracts.
The big thing that we offer to cities, is just a place to put all of their data in a way that links it to a real time set, to a living file. So instead of having to upload and update your city data, it’s connected to a live, could be a Google Sheet for example, but you put the data there and then it’s always there. But we work with API feeds so cities can directly connect with API feeds from their vendors and also publish their own. So in a way it’s almost like giving, empowering them with this new language that they can speak API, they can speak in real time data. They can ingest it and then they can curate different sets and make it available to the public but make it available to developers. So it’s almost like an entry way into a new way of communicating with vendors and citizens.
Ryan Lawler: So once all these datasets are connected and cities have a better view into all of these things that are happening, what can they do with that?
Adriana Young: Yeah, they can start one, sharing, increasing their transparency. So there’s a huge movement in the past 10 years of open governance and transparency. Governments were in kind of a flurry to be compliant and meet open data standards and so they just published, they took their data and they put it on the Internet. And then not that much happened because it wasn’t in a format that people could use, developers mainly could use an ingest in real time and build things with. So they can share it in a format that people can use as a raw material. So apps for example, developers and apps can ingest the data and use it. So just like Google Maps relies on a real time feed of where the trains are. Imagine that for every type of city data.
Ryan Lawler: Okay. Can you give some examples of how cities are working with app developers or third parties to improve life within the city?
Adriana Young: Yeah. Great question. So one of the cities that we work with is Jersey City right across the river, our neighbor and they wanted to go beyond making their data public. And so what we did is that we set up a Stae platform for them. They have about 19 different types of data that they’re ingesting. A lot of the data, actually several sets of data were not available to them previously. They were actually locked in with their vendors. A lot of the times, even when cities have access to the data, maybe one or two people can log in and see it, but not everybody who works in the city.
So the first step for them was just ingesting universalizing and creating internal access for the data. Jersey City is an extremely diversity and so they’re always interested in ways that they can increase access and equity. And so what we did is that we worked with a couple of different chat bot developers to make their data queryable by a chat bot. And so now with Jersey City you can text the city, you can so you can SMS, you don’t have to have a smartphone or you can use Facebook Messenger to ask questions like where can I find a bike share? When is a trash pickup scheduled for my street? That kind of thing.
The next step is adding different languages to it. So ideally they would like to have all the languages that are spoken in Jersey City, have their data queryable by any language that anyone speaks in Jersey City.
Ryan Lawler: What are the biggest challenges when you go to these cities and you try to talk to them and convince them that they need to be able to wrangle up this data? What are the biggest challenges to adoption?
Adriana Young: Yeah, it’s our challenge actually to find a way in which Stae meets one of their urgent needs. So there’s so many competing needs in the city. So sometimes the mayor will have a really strong agenda. Sometimes there’s different departments that will have more funding or more agency. So it’s really our job to do the research and find out what’s the most pressing issue. So what are the community meetings about, what are the hearings about, what is, what are the new kinds of policies that are being drafted?
So right now we’re focusing a lot on helping cities manage ductless bike and scooter programs. So a lot of cities are piloting programs and they have multiple vendors at the same time. So how can they best evaluate and ensure equitable and safe access to these different types of mobility, how can they actually use it as an opportunity to learn from how people are getting around and that’s probably going to impact a lot of decision making around street and transport planning.
Ryan Lawler: It’s my impression that a lot of cities, we hear about budget constraints and budgets being cut all over the place. And so I’m wondering like how do you convince them that they need this thing that’s not already in their budget when they’re probably making cuts somewhere else?
Adriana Young: Yeah. Sometimes what the, not necessarily the argument, but the kind of Aha moment for city managers or business managers for cities is, wait a minute, let’s just invest a little bit more upfront in this tool so that we can make better decisions about what we buy in the future. So because Stae allows you to evaluate the types of data and do prototyping of different data that different vendors are going to provide, you’re less likely to to regret a decision, right? So before you sign up for a longterm contract, there’s an opportunity to evaluate and not feel so pressured. Cities are being very aggressively sold to because it’s a very, it’s a big market, right? And there’s a lot of excitement and attention from venture capital now on the cities and cities as this new frontier to solve. And there’s a lot, there’s almost like a little bit too much aggression and at the same time, lack of humility for the cities.
Cities that have been around for a long time and they don’t operate at the same speed as venture capital or startup. They are slower and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. And I think when you have more empathy and understanding for how cities make decision, how the people working in cities operate, then you can find ways to really naturally align what you’re offering and what their day to day problems are.
Ryan Lawler: Just bouncing off of what you’re saying there, there’s been a lot of talk in the tech space and the venture capital community about regulation at the city level, asking for forgiveness not permission, that type of thing. Do you have a strong feeling on tactics for entering cities as a tech company and where it makes sense to go in and partner, versus just trying to gain hold of a user base that’s there.
Adriana Young: Yeah. We’re not big fans of that. We try, we talk to both … Actually when you ask me if we’re mostly selling to the cities, we are partnering with other vendors who wanna be more responsible. We seek out and those vendors seek us out too, so we work with more enlightened and collaborative tech vendors that want to partner with the city. And the city is not … The city is built for adaption and evolution, you just have to do a little bit of work on your side to understand their processes and speak their language. There has to be some, a little bit more compromise and adaption on the tech side to working with cities. Ultimately, I think that that strategy pays off in the long run. There’s already been companies that … Micro mobility companies, like the scooter and the dockless bikes that had been asked to leave. How do you recover from that? Once you have a bad reputation in the city it’s hard to pivot from that.
Ryan Lawler: It’s true.
Adriana Young: Yeah.
Ryan Lawler: When we talk about smart cities and innovation happening within cities, who’s doing it right? Who’s doing really interesting things from a city perspective?
Adriana Young: I think that Barcelona is doing some great things. They’ve been a leader in the smart city space for a while, because they’re taking a pretty radical approach, which is they’re open sourcing everything. They’re not committing to specific vendors or products. All city data is available via API feed. They’ve taken a much more community and collaborative approach. Instead of discrete pilot projects or services that they want to improve, they are thinking about it much more globally as, “Okay, what is the city that we want to live in?” It’s an open city, it’s a transparent city. What does that mean and how does that philosophy translate to how we treat our data and how we engage technologists and designers and artists.
I think that they’re probably the most interesting and if you wanna say advanced cities in the smart city space. I think that there’s probably a lot of cities that are doing quote-unquote smart city stuff without the smart city products. I think that’s super interesting.
Ryan Lawler: Okay. What’s one controversial opinion that you have that’s really strongly held?
Adriana Young: Well, that technology doesn’t solve problems. It can change problems or shrink them or be a tool, but I think people solve problems with technology, not tech itself.
Ryan Lawler: Okay. What other areas of tech, outside of cities and smart cities and data, are you interested in or excited about? What would you be doing if you weren’t at Stae?
Adriana Young: I think I’d go back to education. I really loved being able to radicalize and transform what learning is for people. Done right I think that education can be extremely transformative and liberating, so I think I would design a school for people to learn about, oh my Gosh, smart cities. No, I would design a school for people that don’t wanna go to school.
Ryan Lawler: What trends do you think will be most impactful for the feature of urban living?
Adriana Young: I think that definitely micro mobility, which is super interesting because we have this excitement and rapid rise of ride sharing. Even 10 years ago I remember being this kind of weird thing, like you’re gonna get into a car with a stranger, that’s so crazy. That happened … I think that the adoption of different modes of mobility is gonna happen a lot faster than we thought, because that’s kind of the essence of urban life. You just wanna get somewhere and you wanna get there as fast and sometimes as fun as possible. Reforming, overhauling these big subway or underground bus systems, that takes time. There’s gonna be a lot of experimentation and I think we’re just starting to see the beginning of the micro mobility. I think there’s gonna be more companies that come to space and new ways, not just in terms of new vehicles, but new ways of vehicles are gonna be used, for business perhaps or as incorporated into learning environments. I think the possibilities there haven’t been explored.
Ryan Lawler: Yeah. This is something that I think a lot of cities have challenges with, sort of like last mile problem. You can get from one part of the city to another part of the city, but you still might be half mile away from your end destination based on public transportation and whatnot that’s available. I know in San Francisco, I moved there right around the same time that Uber started up and getting from one end of the city to the other was always a huge pain, especially after public transpiration shut down at night. There’s definitely huge opportunity there still.
Adriana Young: Yeah. And even though there’s vendors who are operating at a national or international level for these last mile mobility solutions, there are ultimately hyper local. The way that they’re distributed and regulated, it’s around different hub spots. I think there’s this interesting paradox that’s emerging where there are these universal systems and solutions, but they also rely very heavily on the neighborhood level and the community level.
Ryan Lawler: Yeah. I think about, like bike share doesn’t help if there are no bikes available in the neighborhood. Dockless scooters don’t help-
Adriana Young: If you can’t find them.
Ryan Lawler: If we can’t find them.
Adriana Young: Or don’t know where to park them.
Ryan Lawler: Again, to the earlier point, a lot of times when you think about equitable distribution, those things don’t make it into the places where people need the most.
Adriana Young: Mm-hmm. It’s true.
Ryan Lawler: Okay. How will the future be different if Stae becomes ubiquitous?
Adriana Young: Yeah. Well, first of all I would never want Stae to ubiquitous, ’cause that’s not the point. Stae actually stand for Symbiotic Technology And Ecology. In a symbiotic ecosystem there’s mutualism, there’s interdependencies, there’s diversity. So Stae is the right … Let’s say it’s a tool that any city could use, but the point is not for everybody to use the same kind of standard. I always say that the highest form of flattery is piracy. Maybe there’s … Not that people are gonna pirate our software, maybe they would, who knows. But the idea is that there’s going to be more types of products or programs like Stae, so companies that are interested in leveling the playground between private vendors and cities making data a usable, live material that’s not just issued in annual reports, but that you can just easily access. If you’re somebody who’s not even not necessarily devoted to civic technology you could experiment and dabble with, [inaudible 00:27:25] as a city API feed and seeing how it could enhance the use of our grocery delivery app, for example.
I think that once Stae become more widely adopted I think their relationship and the attitude will change around data. Where right now it’s kind of this, it’s this foreboding task. You have to wrangle, like it’s always somebody’s terrible jobs to wrangle all these different reports and who’s responsible for the uniformity of the data archetypes. I hope that we are setting the future for a much more fun and free relationship with city data, so it’s not anxiety producing, it’s possibility producing.
Ryan Lawler: Great. Well thanks for being in the podcast.
Adriana Young: Yeah, thank you so much for having me, it’s fun.