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Alphabet And Feds To Partner On Free Wi-Fi And Traffic Analytics

Kiosks in New York City will deliver Wi-Fi and monitor traffic data.

Alphabet And Feds To Partner On Free Wi-Fi And Traffic Analytics
[Photo: Flickr user KIDKUTSMEDIA]

Alphabet's Sidewalk Labs and the U.S. Department of Transportation announced Thursday they're working together on a platform called "Flow" that will deliver free Wi-Fi, as well as traffic analytics information that could help route demand-responsive transit and, one day, self-driving cars.

The platform will be developed in conjunction with the seven finalist cities in the DOT's Smart City Challenge, and the winning city will receive Flow free of charge, said Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.

"Sidewalk Labs will install over 100 kiosks over 4 neighborhoods—approximately 25 blocks of the winning city," Foxx said in a Thursday press conference.

The kiosks will be similar to those replacing pay phones in New York City through the LinkNYC program, built by a Sidewalk-led consortium, said Sidewalk Labs CEO Dan Doctoroff. In addition to Wi-Fi that residents can use with their own devices, the kiosks will include Android tablets to let users without smartphones or computers access the Internet and traffic data, Doctoroff said.

Anonymized traffic data collected by sensors on the devices, joined with billions of data points from Alphabet's Google and other sources, will potentially help cities build smart transit lines that reroute based on demand and traffic and help drivers locate parking spaces and dodge traffic, he said.

"As mass transit becomes more nimble and responsive to demand, we hope to be able to play a role in helping mass transit routes adjust, ultimately in real time, to ridership demand and road usage," said Doctoroff, who previously served as New York's deputy mayor for economic development and rebuilding under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. "Finally, we’d like to see Flow be a platform to test new technologies, like ultimately autonomous vehicles, to enable cities to ultimately improve transportation design."

Privacy advocates, including the New York Civil Liberties Union, have raised concerns about the security and privacy of data obtained through LinkNYC kiosks, though LinkNYC has said it takes steps to safeguard privacy and avoid storing private browsing data.

In cities where Flow is deployed, Sidewalk Labs will work with officials on privacy rules to make sure traffic data is properly anonymized and user information is kept safe, Doctoroff said.

"Our expectation is that when we work with the seven cities and then ultimately the finalist city, that will be something that we discuss with them," he said.

The seven Smart City finalists are: Austin, Texas; Columbus, Ohio; Denver, Colorado; Kansas City, Missouri; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Portland, Oregon; and San Francisco, California.

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