Flow, A New City Analytics Platform From Alphabet, Is Coming To Unclog Urban Congestion

Sidewalk Labs is building sensor-filled kiosks to create a real-time image of traffic in seven cities (also also give you free public Wi-Fi).

Flow, A New City Analytics Platform From Alphabet, Is Coming To Unclog Urban Congestion
Pavel L Photo and Video via Shutterstock

Sidewalk Labs, the urban innovation company formed by Alphabet (neé Google), is now bringing Google’s wealth of transportation data–including data from Google Maps and Waze–to the problem of city transit planning.


Today, the company announced a partnership with the U.S. Department of Transportation to work with the seven cities on a new platform called Flow. Its purpose is to aggregate anonymized traffic data from Google’s apps and combine it with other data sources, including the city’s data and a network of sensor-fitted kiosks that Sidewalk Labs will build, and use it to create a detailed, real-time picture of what’s happening on the streets. U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said Flow would offer “unprecedented citywide transportation analytics” from “billions of miles of trips.”

Seven mid-sized cities that are finalists in the DOT’s Smart Cities Challenge, including San Francisco, Austin, and Denver, would be the ones to first test and co-develop the platform. Sidewalk Labs plans to build 100 kiosks in four neighborhoods of the winning city that would offer free Wi-Fi access to citizens and collect sensor data, such as air quality and noise information. They would be similar to the LinkNYC kiosks that Sidewalk Labs is helping to build in New York City today.

Sidewalk Labs CEO Dan Doctoroff described it as a “transportation coordination platform” that would bring together data about how people, vehicles, and public transit moved around the city and help transportation planners visualize it. They could make real-time decisions about, say, how to route a bus or time traffic lights based on current conditions. It could also help spin off consumer apps, such as one that notifies a person when and where parking spots are available. Over time, it could help cities test driverless cars, which–of course–Alphabet is also developing.

Most of this isn’t quite in place yet. Doctoroff said the initial, basic applications could come in the next six months. The project, he says, builds on two years of research on “how urban mobility data could be made available without compromising privacy.” “Our interest is not in having individualized data,” he says.

The broader context for all of this is, of course, that cities are becoming more clogged than ever and public transportation and infrastructure budgets are chronically short of what’s needed. “We know we’re not going to be build more roads. It’s hard to invest in meaningfully more mass transit. We have to do better with what we have,” says Doctoroff.

Foxx says smarter transportation planning could “flatten the curve of the infrastructure deficit a little bit.” “It’s not adequate against the chronic underinvestment in infrastructure in our country, but what we are introducing into the conversation through this challenge is the possibility that technology and innovation could help us solve some of our mobility challenges differently.”

About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire.