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IT Startup Community Engages in Smart Columbus

Lauren Sega Lauren Sega IT Startup Community Engages in Smart ColumbusImage from HopperCarts.
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Columbus won the Smart City Challenge last June, beating out 77 competing cities, including Austin, Portland, OR, San Francisco and Denver. With a $40 million grant from the USDOT, and adding in local public and private investment, a total of $417 million is going into the initiative. Mayor Andrew Ginther wants to raise that to $1 billion.

This enthusiastic investment, part of what tech leaders in the city like to call “Columbus startup culture,” is what will elevate and engage the tech startup community as the Smart Columbus initiative moves from the drawing board into application.

“In early 2000, when people thought about startups here in town, there wasn’t a fabric — there were ingredients, but there wasn’t a fabric,” said Ben Blanquera, VP, Delivery and Experience for Columbus Collaboratory. “We see now all the success of our startup culture, but it takes time.”

With that startup fabric laying part of the foundation for Smart Columbus, Blanquera and Sam Orth, Director of the Columbus Department of Technology, said Smart Columbus will have to be woven into a fabric of its own.

The initiative takes already-existing public data, like the frequencies and patterns of traffic signals, water and energy systems, crime data, etc.; engages the private sector to collect private data, such as the number of cars parked in a parking garage at any given time, or video camera footage; and creates an all-encompassing city data exchange. But, Orth said it’s about more than just building that platform.

“It’s about integrating it into the fabric of how we think about ourselves and how we use information to make ourselves better, whether it’s the city making sure we’ve got the right lighting in certain parts of the city, or whether it means we’re doing a better job at protecting the public from harm, or whether it’s Nationwide using information to be better at insuring motorists, or Ohio State using data to improve the quality of healthcare — it’s not about any one of it, it’s about all of it, so it’s really building that fabric and that culture up,” said Orth.

The data exchange establishes communication between neighborhood mechanisms and in turn describes how those neighborhoods operate. Further data aggregation is already happening. Residents in North Linden are volunteering to place sensors on their vehicle, bike, wheelchair, self, etc. These sensors will record interactions between cyclists, pedestrians, cars, and traffic signals, tracking movement within and between neighborhoods, mapping out which routes are being used to get people from home to work, to the grocery store and to school.

The data will be interpreted and used by IT startups to create more efficient systems. Such data could solve the “first mile, last mile” problem facing working class residents. Implementing a Columbus version of ride sharing apps Go L.A. or Ride Austin would allow people to plan one cohesive route from Point A to Point B. Plus, ride sharing is economical, environmentally aware, and, eventually, a solution to overcrowded roads as the city prepares to add another million people by 2050.

Any ride sharing app could leave behind lower-income workers unless there was some way to run it as a public service, similar to COTA, or by allowing a non-profit to manage it. These are details to be worked out as the initiative moves from the “ideation stage” to the “tangible product” stage, a transition that will happen as more data is collected, contributed and interpreted.

“You can’t solve problems if you don’t have data. If you don’t collect the data, you never solve the problem,” said Blanquera. “So let’s start creating this notion of what data we have, what problems we solve, what problems we have, what data do we need. Let’s start creating a place where that conversation can happen so the folks who build out applications, all these IT startups can look at that and say, ‘Okay, we can add value to this process.’”

Some pilot projects will be coming out of Smart Columbus soon. Ryan McManus, Resident Entrepreneur for Smart Columbus, is planning a “Hackathon” for May. It’ll open up real data sets to local and far-off startups who will then interpret it and begin to develop the apps that create those streamlining solutions.

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Our new technology series is presented by our partners at TCETRA. 

TCETRA is a software development company based in Dublin, Ohio. Since 2007, the company has been focused on serving the prepaid wireless industry through the development of specific business tools, software, and applications. Our team is made up of talented technical and creative professionals dedicated to delivering innovative solutions to complex problems and helping grow the technology community in Columbus and the Midwest.


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