Future of Transit: Thoughts on Helsinki

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Perhaps flying cars are not the future of transportation.The city of Helsinki recently announced plans to transform its existing public transportation network into a comprehensive multi-modal system that, in theory, would render cars unnecessary. Our in-house urbanists and transit experts, Jeff Maki and Neysa Pranger, provide their perspectives on this ambitious plan and what it could mean for NYC.

What’s your overall perspective on the Finnish plan?

JM: I think the Finnish plan well accounts for the direction technology is going– personal, mobile, ubiquitous and on-demand. In fact, I was interested to read the Masters thesis, which was the basis of the Finnish recommendation because it applied the logic of the Internet and its development in the US, as well as trends in the American energy market, to the future of public transit.

It’s an interesting perspective and theory of evolution for transit, especially coming from a country that is typically more friendly to state-owned infrastructure as opposed to privately-run, “market driven” approaches, usually found in the US. The focus on “millennials” and their unique perspectives on public services was also great to see in the thesis.

NP: While seamless travel options through integrated wayfinding and payment are not new ideas, Northern Europeans are once again pioneering an innovative, city-scale transportation initiative much as they did with congestion pricing, bike share and pedestrian friendly streets. The proposed plan by the Helsinki City Planning Department will be watched by many as citizen expectation for reliable service rises. While at the same time, however, cities and states grapple with the ability to improve services due to structural (decline in gas tax revenue, for example) and political (enacting new tax revenue remains highly difficult) funding constraints.

But Helsinki is doing it at the right time, as those most likely to embrace the “shared economy” (e.g. Airbnb, Uber, BikeShare and TaskRabbit, etc.) move into a prime user demographic. Overall, what Helsinki is proposing is highly innovative but will also require intense collaboration between public and private providers, special attention to equitable provisioning and continual pilot testing on how different user segments’ needs are addressed.

What’s it going to take for people to give up their cars?

JM: To be honest, I think it’s just time. It’s already happening. There’s been a lot published recently about millennials and their declining rates of car ownership. You can take a bus from NYC to Boston for a few dollars now– it’s certainly not the price holding people back at this point. It’s about shifting expectations to a “shared” mindset.

You might summarize by extending some of the logic from the Finnish Masters thesis: if the road network (and the car) was a symbol of freedom to the “boomers”, the Internet might be that same network to millennials. And it’s our task as designers of personal mobility systems to figure out how to enable mobile devices and other Internet-connected things to provide that same sense of freedom afforded by the car. That’s the thing that will cause people to switch, I think.

NP: I think it’s useful to remember that in New York City at least, owning a car is difficult already as the City has multiple public and private systems, like ZipCar, buses, bike share and subways. As a result, nearly half the residents in Manhattan do not own a car and car ownership city-wide is on the decline.

But for users to move away from personal car ownership permanently, they’ll need to be presented with a time-competitive option for getting from point A to point B for a number of different purposes. Also key to this will be the frequency of service (how long will I have to wait?) and reliability (does it show up when it’s supposed to?).

Other requirements include:

– one or two seat rides: moving from one mode to the next can be cumbersome, especially for the elderly or parents with strollers;

– a cultural shift in perceived benefits of owning a car (going from ‘privilege’ to ‘curse’);

– support from mayors and governors, including strong messaging and the right package of policy incentives to back it up.

How will the Internet of Things play into this?

JM: This plan requires that shared services– buses, car rentals, taxis, subways, etc.– will need to be connected to users. The Internet of Things is that connection, so I see its role as bringing the ability to engage with more physical systems to our phones via the Internet (or whatever form that might take in the future.) And it’s important to note that the interaction will go two ways: transit operators get data from users, and users get data from transit operators.

NP: I completely agree. Helsinki will find it difficult to get their system off the ground without real-time data availability and connected systems– both of which will be powered by the Internet of Things.

Is such a system feasible in a city like New York?

JM: Of course. We already have many of the pieces here. A ubiquitous network of taxis, an extensive transportation network in the form of commuter rail, subway and bus; car share vendors, car rentals; informal bus options and two world-gateway airports.

If there’s any barrier to realizing the Finnish plan here, I think it’s the lack of integration. Elsewhere, one organization operates many of these modes, but in NYC you have multiple organizations and little integration, making using these services more tedious– different fare cards, different mobile apps, etc. Getting the MTA, Port Authority and the City to form a working group charged with integrating transport in the New York region would be a huge step towards the Finnish plan, and a way to encourage people to use other options.

NP: While Helsinki’s motives for developing Mobility as a Service are driven by trends in the marketplace, environment and demographics, New York would likely be driven by others: relieving traffic that wreaks havoc on the economy, improving public health and safety of pedestrians, and solving the ever-ominous need to fund better public transportation options. Over the last five years New York has pointed to congestion pricing as a solution but that has not proven feasible so far. But addressing New York’s needs can be done many different ways– including increasing the supply of other time-competitive options, such as bike to ferry or bus to bike. So the development of shared systems such as Helsinki could be realized in New York and publicly supported.

The MTA, for example, spends fifteen cents of every fare dollar paid towards collecting that fare. Sharing fare collection across ten different systems that collect $10 billion in annual revenue would mean savings in the range of $1.5 billion dollars. That’s a strong argument for integration!

What would you do for NYC?

JM: As one concrete proposal, I would better integrate paratransit into NYC’s mass transit system. It’s the publicly-operated system we have that closest to the type described in the Finnish proposal. It’s also one that receives a lot of Federal funding, so the potential to innovate around it is potentially huge. There were plans to replace paratransit with taxi vouchers a few years ago– but what if we added paratransit to the transportation network and redirected that money towards programs that serve both those with special mobility needs as well as the general public? There are challenges here, but nothing that can’t be solved.

NP: We could pilot a shared system in Lower Manhattan, where there’s already limited parking, a residential and business population and access to several public and private systems including bike share, PATH, buses, subways, and ferries.

Data Freedom: Part 1 of 3

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“…but they’ll never take our freedom!”

When friends ask me about living in New York, I usually answer: “there are pros and cons to everything, and if you’re willing to take the cons to get the pros, it’s fantastic.” It may seem strange to say that maxim could relate to the exciting field of SaaS data management… but there it is.

If you’re a reader of this blog, by now you know that we here at CG love the cloud and love all that SaaS vendors can bring to the table. But all this “not-reinventing-the-wheel” stuff leaves many of us with the curious question of how to access data that’s been diligently sent off elsewhere. Sure, most SaaS vendors provide excellent reporting for the data they know. But sometimes we want to do reporting across vendors, across data sets, or even just different reporting than the vendor easily allows.

Enter our “CG Platforms” internal task force, powered by our Enterprise Architecture group. Our team’s mission is to see what we can do to free up our data. For the long haul, the answer is a full Master Data Management architecture with a full-functioning middle tier. In some cases, though, you just need something small that doesn’t require diving into the deep end of learning a vendor’s API. So, how do you balance out building something small while keeping an eye on full MDM as the end-goal?

Not shockingly, success in that balance can look different depending on the vendor, the needs, and even the time we want to spend. In a series of “Data Freedom” blog posts, we’ll take a look at a few cases of how that’s looked for us and which technologies we’ve used along the way.

First up, the appropriately-named Vendor 1, on the “quick and useful” end of the spectrum….

Vendor 1:  For this vendor, used by our Accounting department, the data is easy to access using its internal reporting capabilities. It also provides a feature to output nicely-formatted PDF reports. Those are helpful features for day-to-day use, but they don’t help us with any historical backup or reporting. What will we do the day Alexis de Tocqueville sets off to write the great history of Control Group? (We can dream.)

So how did we backup these dynamically created, static files in a way that’s easily accessible and both lightweight but updateable? The vendor’s own reporting was a great start– we could pull a listing with information on these reports, but for Alexis and his ilk, we wanted the prettied-up assets themselves… and we were certainly not going to click through every possible one manually.

Faced with this issue, we turned to an old-favorite, Selenium, which you may know and love as an automated regression-testing framework. But we’ve actually been able to use Selenium to do lightweight browser automation beyond just testing. For these purposes, it gave us out-of-the box tools to do a lot of the heavy-lifting. Once we imported and filtered the vendor’s regular report of the data we needed, we took a look at what Selenium could get us– with a major eye towards what we could use to re-run the script to update those documents over time.

We did it in three easy steps:

  1. First, we set up Selenium’s default cookie management (called the CookieStore class) to handle the security side of things. That allowed us to programmatically log into our account within an automated browser session.
  2. From there, we wanted to have the program ask the system to pull up a long list of PDFs. For that we used Selenium’s Java Http client libraries with the information we pulled from the vendor’s own report in order to manipulate a variable URL to send into our “browser session.” The effect was just like looping through PDF reports as if they were in regular browser tabs.
  3. Finally, we had to put those files somewhere. Organizing the files was just a matter of saving them out to a folder structure that made sense for future “manual retrieval” (by humans, not robots). Just as we easily pulled report information to manipulate which URLs to call, we pulled ID numbers and dates for each file.  Then the program could save out the files to folders with names that made sense, i.e. customer names, report IDs, dates. On an updated run in the future, the same system will file the new reports alongside the old.

Three functions.  Half a day.  Repeatable backups.  Have at it, historians!

See, it’s that easy!

Custom Electronics Hack Demo

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At Control Group, we love to share our knowledge and eat pizza, so from time to time we host lunchtime “Drive-By” sessions to kill two birds with one stone. A few weeks ago, one of our engineers, Bob Paradiso, gave a few demos on connecting systems with various consumer electronics and appliances. His presentation provides viewers with a new outlook on every day products: all electronics are like lego blocks that can be connected to enhance their individual value and the overall user experience.

Enjoy the video (and apologies for the sound). More to come from Bob and the CG team!

 

How a successful omni-channel retail company keeps innovating

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A few weeks ago in San Francisco, the Deckers Outdoor Corporation held their first Consumer Experience Conference (CEC). Granted, I’ve attended plenty of conferences touting omni-channel and other buzz-worthy phrased presentations. But what made this stand out is the fact that a company re-focused a week long sales conference into a conference for their store managers and executives to learn the latest and greatest thoughts on the power of consumer experience (CX) and omni-channel retailing. A powerful blend of best of breed tech vendors, external experts and speakers, as well as their most vocal internal proponents, all spent the week painting the picture of how to go about changing an established leading shoe retailer into a CX and omni-channel juggernaut!

CEC Deckers

CG’s Charlie Miller presenting at CEC

A lynchpin of the overall conference success was the simple yet excellent CEC app developed by DoubleDutch. This app provided a schedule, as well as a social feed from all attendees, and was actually heavily used by all. Gameification of the leaderboard motivated attendees to submit and interact as much as possible and turned into a cut-throat battle for social sharing supremacy. Just like other major conferences, the format was familiar with keynote speakers, focus sessions as well as breakout workshops dedicated to specific topics. Another nice touch was the real-time translation services provided via headphones for team members who flew in from Japan and China so they too could enjoy the heady concepts around redefining the customer experience.

As an outside observer invited into this conference, it was heartening to witness how enthusiastically the attendees embraced the new ideas, innovations and upcoming changes. In other conferences the “focus on the customer” mantra seems like it is merely a veneer to cover sales conversion goals. But at the CEC event, this was taken to such an extreme that during the CEO’s talk to the entire group, he implored his team members to “stop selling and start being…. more compassionate… more engaging… more authentic”. As galling this call to arms sounds, it was all in line with the thrust of the Deckers retail approach, which is to follow the lead of the customer and never force the sale.

I’ve been working in retail technology for over 20 years and have never come across a company like Decker’s Outdoor that embraces change and innovation with such gusto. I’d like to thank the folks from Decker’s for inviting Control Group to attend and present at the Consumer Experience Conference 2014. The Deckers team’s enthusiasm and company culture make for a fertile bed of innovation and progress.

Join us Aug 6! Women in Tech Event & Documentary Launch Party

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Dream Girl

Join Control Group and NY Tech Meetup on August 6 for a Women in Tech NYC casual summer happy hour to celebrate the launch campaign of Dream, Girl.

Dream, Girl is a documentary film redefining what it means to be a boss. We know the names of Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, and Bill Gates. But what about female entrepreneurs? What’s their story? What do their lives look like? For the last six months the Dream, Girl production team has been finding out just that. We have been interviewing and talking to female CEOs in the startup community to find out what drives them and how to be the boss. The film’s all female crew Erin Bagwell, Mary Perrino, Sara Waber & Kat Lazo encourage you to support their kickstarter campaign and empower the next generation of leaders to dream big. Dream, Girl. Learn more at: http://dreamgirlfilm.com/

Space is limited! RSVP here!

About Women in Tech NYC – Women in Tech NYC was founded by NY Tech Meetup, Control Group, and Girl Develop IT, with the goal of increasing the number of women participating in New York’s technology industry by gathering, coordinating, and amplifying the work of organizations throughout NYC that provide opportunities for women and girls to engage and lead in the industry through education, networking, mentorship, and career development. http://www.womenintechnyc.com/

Control Group awarded DoITT Class 1 Systems Integration Contract

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Technology is critical to New York’s place as a 21st Century city. Not just because tech brings lots of investment and jobs—but because successful cities have always thrived on the disruption new technology brings.

Mayor de Blasio, May 2014

Control Group is proud to announce that we were awarded a NYC Department of Information Technology & Telecommunications (DoITT) Class 1 Systems Integration contract for citywide technology projects. That means beginning on July 1, 2014, we will be able to help New York City government agencies overhaul and build new systems to support a thriving 21st Century global city.

Technology has the power to transform government and citizen services. But with shrinking budgets and citizens’ expectations rising, government simply needs do more with less. The good news is that deep opportunity exists to leverage lean approaches, new technologies, and the growing connections citizens have with their mobile devices to create more meaningful, interactive, and responsive citizen engagement. The great news is that Control Group has helped hundreds of organizations across diverse industries – from Finance, to Real Estate, to Transit – become more customer-focused, innovative, and efficient. So we’re ready to help our city do the same. 

If you are interested in learning more about our NYC Public Sector Practice, please contact Bob Richardson at brichardson@controlgroup.com.