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Google’s Foray Into Smart City Technology Offers Promise in Low-Income Communities

Written by Amanda Maher

In recent years, the term “smart city” has become a part of urban planners’ lexicon. The term is expansive – a smart city is one that uses digital, information and communication technologies to enhance the quality and performance of urban services. It’s the mobile app you use to find out when your bus is coming or to report a pothole to city hall. These innovations provide useful tools for sharing and communicating data, but a number of cities are adopting more significant technological advancements that are likely to change the way we interact with each other and our built environment.

“While there are apps to tell people about traffic conditions, or the prices of available apartments, the biggest challenges that cities face – such as making transportation more efficient and lowering the cost of living, reducing energy usage and helping government operate more efficiently have, so far, been more difficult to address,” said Dan Doctoroff, who formerly held positions as CEO of Bloomberg and New York City’s Deputy Director of Economic Development.  Enter Sidewalk Labs, Google’s foray into smart cities.

Sidewalk Labs will develop new products, platforms and partnerships to address some of cities’ most perplexing challenges. While Sidewalk Labs will be focused on developing and incubating urban technologies, the company emphasizes the importance of partnerships: “A lot of urban challenges are interrelated—for example, availability of transportation affects where people choose to live, which affects housing prices, which affects quality of life,” Google CEO Larry Page wrote in a Google+ post announcing Sidewalk Labs. These partnerships will help establish a big-picture view of the interrelated systems affecting city life before Sidewalk Labs invests in new technologies.

Page compared Sidewalk Labs to Calico, the well-financed life sciences company Google launched in 2013, and to Google X, the tech giant’s secretive testing facility for things like self-driving cars and high-altitude balloons that beam the internet to earth. Compared to these other endeavors, Sidewalk Labs represents a “relatively modest investment,” but it’s “in an area where I hope we can really improve people’s lives,” said Page.

Google expects to make strategic acquisitions of the technologies developed by Sidewalk Labs, and will directly invest in others. Doctoroff will spearhead the independent, Google-owned company.

At the time of the Sidewalk Labs announcement, there were few details about the challenges it would tackle. Given Doctoroff’s connections to New York, it should come as no surprise that the first project would be based there—but now we know exactly what that project entails: bringing widespread Wi-Fi to big cities. Sidewalk Labs has just acquired Control Group and Titan, two of the primary forces behind an effort called LinkNYC, an effort announced last fall which aims to convert the city’s old phone booths into 10,000 ad-supported Wi-Fi hot spots. The new company is called Intersection, and Sidewalk Labs is the primary investor, with a number of others.

“By bringing these two industry leaders together, Intersection will help make cities connected places where you can walk down any street and access free ultra high-speed Wi-Fi, find transit and wayfinding information, access information about city services – the possibilities are endless,” said Doctoroff in a company press release.

On its surface, universal Wi-Fi may just seem like an amenity to urban dwellers who can tap into the public Wi-Fi rather than draining data from their own plans. But the reality is that many people still don’t have Internet access; an analysis by the Center for Economic Opportunity found that 22 percent of New York City households to not have internet service at home, and 36 percent of households below the poverty line do not have access at home. With so many basic things having gone digital – from homework assignments to job applications – access to the internet is crucial for upward mobility.

In order to bridge the digital divide, New York City is piloting various solutions – such as lending wireless hotspots to low-income residents through their libraries, and investing $10 million to bring free broadband to five public housing projects. “Getting high speed internet access to low-income New Yorkers is a game changer for families and for the city that needs all our residents to be able to use 21st Century technologies to improve their lives and to build their communities,” said Maya Wiley, Counsel to NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio.

The first Sidewalk Labs shows promise as another step in the effort to bring widespread, free Wi-Fi to the low-income communities that need it most.

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