In April, a team of representatives from Sidewalk Labs — a subsidiary of Alphabet, which is also Google’s parent company — visited Columbus, Ohio, to pitch city officials on a sprawling, ambitious plan to overhaul the city’s transportation infrastructure.
Sidewalk proposed managing and expanding the city’s transportation data on transit routes, passengers, parking spaces, cars, and more. In the process, Sidewalk promised to give the city “new superpowers” and make it more accessible.
By mid-year, Sidewalk Labs had pitched at least six other tech-hungry cities — San Francisco, Austin, Pittsburgh, Denver, Kansas City, and Portland — on the same bold proposal.
In Columbus, the company’s representatives said, two systems called Flow and Link could “pinpoint the causes of congestion,” reduce the “emissions and distracted driving that results from circling for parking,” “encourage ride-sharing,” and provide “ultra-fast gigabit WiFi.” That could be a significant improvement in a city where an estimated 82% of commuters drive to work. And though Sidewalk’s presentation does not name the final cost of the systems — it’d depend on a range of factors — it claims that the new approach could ultimately return a profit to Columbus.
But outsourcing these traditionally municipal concerns to a private company — and a high-profile technological innovator, at that — would be a stark change that could have implications well beyond central Ohio.
Those promises and more are detailed in a set of documents BuzzFeed News obtained through a freedom-of-information request to Columbus. Among the contents:
- Sidewalk Labs’ slide decks presented to Columbus in the April meeting.
- A proposed “memorandum of understanding” that Sidewalk sent to city officials.
- A spreadsheet that Sidewalk shared to help the city estimate potential revenues and costs associated with the company’s proposal.
Some excerpts from these documents have been published by other outlets, including The Guardian and Recode. But until now the documents have not been reproduced in full. You can find them at the bottom of this post.
Sidewalk Labs targeted its pitch to cities competing for the Department of Transportation’s Smart City Challenge. In June the DOT named Columbus the competition’s winner, beating the six other finalists for the $40 million prize.
Columbus and Sidewalk Labs haven’t reached any formal agreements, according to Jeff Ortega, assistant director for the city’s Department of Public Service.
“At this point, discussions are centered around whether or not the company’s ‘Flow’ platform can help link health providers and residents in disadvantaged neighborhoods to facilitate transportation options,” Ortega told BuzzFeed News this week. “At this point, if Sidewalk Labs were to be engaged, the engagement would only be specific to this purpose.”
Sidewalk Labs declined to comment specifically on its pitch to Columbus. But in an op-ed published this summer, Daniel Doctoroff, the company’s CEO, wrote that its “conversations with city officials and urban planners” around the country “taught us many important lessons.” He continued: “Our role during these talks was to learn what the public sector is already trying, and discuss ways to help those trials become successful.”
At the heart of the proposed collaboration is Sidewalk’s data platform, which would integrate data from city records, digital sensors, and “third-party data providers” such as Google Maps, Waze (the navigation app acquired by Google in 2013), Uber, and Lyft.
Some of the data might come from camera-equipped cars…
…or camera-equipped, smartphone-sensing kiosks, such as those already installed in New York City:
Sidewalk also proposes helping cities standardize data from their various, cacophonous databases, and collate that data into a core “registry”:
Worried about the implications of vast, privately managed database containing loads of sensitive information? Sidewalk Labs says it hears you:
Toward the end of the pitch, Sidewalk throws in a sweetener: Not only will its services improve transportation in Columbus, but they could actually make the city money.
Some of that money could come from fees for matching people with transit options and parking spots…
…while other revenue could come from ads placed on those roadside kiosks:
In the final slide of the main pitch deck, Sidewalk lays out its “conceptual timeline”:
Want to explore the documents in full? Here they are:
To download the financial modeling spreadsheet, click here.
Jeremy Singer-Vine is the data editor for the BuzzFeed News investigative unit and is based in Washington, D.C. His secure PGP fingerprint is E2B0 63DB 0601 D634 1E9E F9AE 9F24 768F 9B4A EFB0
Contact Jeremy Singer-Vine at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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