SUDS tours Google: better cities through public-private data partnerships

Last Wednesday, SUDS visited Google’s Pittsburgh office, on the eve of its 10-year anniversary celebrations. We got to see their famous hammock room, Kennywood-themed hallways, and micro kitchens stocked according to behavioral science. But as jealous as we were of the nap pods, the best part of the visit was a talk by CMU Computer Science PhD alumna Sarah Loos on Google’s Better Cities project.

Cities face huge challenges in monitoring and managing their transportation infrastructure. In the US alone, $124 billion is wasted each year in traffic jams. The Better Cities team at Google has been piloting methodologies that match up cities’ transport data with aggregate, anonymized snapshots of historical traffic statistics in order to yield insight and solutions to nasty traffic problems.

For example, Google partnered with the City of Amsterdam to validate sensor readings on the A10 highway, which can tell when cars are slowing down (and thus, if a traffic jam might occur). The city can then analyze the data and change speed limits on its digital signs and take other measures to mitigate the jam’s impact. The physical sensors are really accurate, but also really expensive to install and maintain. Google found that by combining only some of the sensor data with representative models of aggregate data, it could detect the same traffic patterns with a high level of accuracy. By reducing the number of sensors needed in each stretch of road, Amsterdam’s government can save between 50,000-100,000 Euros per kilometer per year.


As cities are using more individual-level data from more sources, including public-private partnerships, Loos stressed the importance of keeping information anonymous and private. Her work is focusing on differential privacy algorithms, which add enough noise to the data to mask the influence of any one individual’s contribution to the set.

These pilot projects are an exciting example of how simple, but smart, data collaboration can improve city management. And Loos and her Google team are looking for new cities to partner with—we hope Pittsburgh will be one of them!




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