When it comes to the types of startups that draw attention and investment from big-name celebrities, smart-infrastructure platforms probably don’t come to mind. But for Uncharted, a company that uses technology to optimize how cities deliver services, the seemingly nerdy world of smart infrastructure has struck a nerve with some of the biggest names in sports and entertainment.
Investors in the company include NBA stars Kyrie Irving and Carmelo Anthony, actors Issa Rae and Hannibal Buress, and investment funds like Magic Johnson Enterprises. According to Uncharted founder and CEO Jessica O. Matthews, these big names have gotten involved not necessarily because they’re smart-infrastructure enthusiasts, but because they understand just how frustrating unreliable infrastructure can be.
“Black and brown people in America think about infrastructure every single day because we do not have what we need to be as successful as some of our peers,” Matthews says. She points to shaky internet connections, electric grids that crumble in inclement weather, and water pipes that poison underserved communities. Experiencing these shortcomings firsthand is what’s drawn so much interest in her company, she says.
Founded in 2011 and backed by $7 million in seed funding, Uncharted aims to eliminate these shortcomings by giving cities a way to better understand, in real time, how their infrastructure is performing, and when service outages or failures are likely to occur. Through a pilot program launched in Matthews’s hometown of Poughkeepsie, New York, Uncharted has deployed a platform that unifies the city’s infrastructure systems and sensors to create a dashboard that can monitor dozens of service flows and anticipate disruptions across potentially millions of pieces of urban infrastructure.
Rather than waiting for a water main to break, the system can notify the public works department when leaks are detected. Rather than a power outage taking out an entire city’s traffic lights, the system can reroute backup supplies to keep the lights operating safely.
A city could use it simply to better track leaking water pipes, or connect it with all of its sensor-enabled infrastructure systems to create a citywide network of data. Matthews says the cost to each city for adding new technologies and services to the platform decreases with scale, helping cities use the growing number of sensors and control systems to make their infrastructure smarter and more able to communicate with one another when needed.
“We’re not sending all the data about all those traffic lights constantly up to some central, scary Westworld cloud, but in real time we’re determining [whether there is a problem] in that localized area and, if there is a problem, sending that information up so that it can be contextualized and gotten to the right people,” Matthews says.
One of the more tangible elements of Uncharted’s work is a physical device it developed to contain the technology that collects and stores data. Designed for easy access, the device is a flat, hollow block about the size of a panel of concrete, and it can be installed on a regular street or sidewalk. Inside, there’s space to store a variety of smart infrastructure technologies. The devices are installed like paving blocks and can hold backup batteries that can power street and traffic lights during a heavy storm, as well as computer storage systems that act like small data centers distributed throughout the city.
The goal, Matthews says, is to overcome the slow adoption of new technologies that’s often caused by what she calls the “dig once” problem. “The way dig once works is cities say, ‘We know we have to fix this one thing, but it’s such a hassle to dig up the ground; let’s wait until we have three or four other things to fix and then we’ll do it all at once.’ That’s the most insane way to think about technology,” Matthews says.
Instead, Uncharted’s sidewalk panels and digital platform create an easily implemented smart network without tearing up the entire city. After nearly a year of working with the city of Poughkeepsie through a $1.8 million grant, Uncharted is now opening up its technology to other cities. It will continue to work with Poughkeepsie and manage the platform, delivering operational information to city departments and agencies. Uncharted declined to disclose the cost of implementing its platform in other cities, but says it’s equivalent to what a city might spend on a one-off infrastructure study.
Many cities are hardly ready for this level of technological control over their infrastructure systems, with some struggling to find the resources to prevent sewage overflows or bury overhead utility lines that are prone to outages and fire risks. Uncharted’s proposition can improve smart infrastructure, but a lot of the infrastructure in cities is still pretty dumb.
Matthews says it’s only a matter of time before more cities begin implementing smart systems and sensors into their infrastructure systems, even if at a small scale. “Our platform streamlines the way that these technologies can work with each other,” she says. “We have contextual insights so we can fix problems before they happen and make the overall system work faster and cheaper.”