This post is part of our Future of Smart Cities series which interviews the leading founders and executives who are on the front lines of the industry to get a better understanding of what problems the industry is facing, what trends are taking place, and what the future looks like.
The following is an interview we recently had with Laura Schewel, Founder and CEO of StreetLight Data.
1. What’s the history of StreetLight Data? Where and how did you begin?
LS: StreetLight Data is the first company to make it easy, affordable, and efficient to collect real-world transportation data. I started the company as a graduate student at UC-Berkeley. Prior to graduate school, I worked as a researcher in electric vehicles. As a graduate student, I saw an opportunity for mobile devices and smart phones to provide transportation data required for building electric vehicle infrastructure. StreetLight Data was established after I won a pitch competition sponsored by the UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business business.
Although I entered the competition primarily because I needed to find additional funding for my research, the competition helped me make connections in the venture capital and start-up community in the San Francisco Bay Area – for example, StreetLight Data’s co-founder, Paul Friedman. I realized that there was real potential in commercializing my research. It became clear that if we built a business dedicated to making Big Data useful for transportation, my research could have an even bigger impact. About a year and a half after winning the pitch competition, I decided to put my studies on hold to dedicate myself to StreetLight Data full-time.
2. What specific problem does StreetLight Data solve? How do you solve it?
LS: Answering the question, “Where do people go?” sounds simple, but historically transportation data collection has been very expensive and time consuming. It meant sending out surveys to households by mail, installing sensors that count cars on specific roads, and asking for feedback at public meetings. These methods can be effective for collecting data for a small number of people. Using them at scale is cost-prohibitive and presents serious logistical and statistical challenges. Given that we spend billions of dollars on transportation infrastructure, relying on insufficient, stale data to make these investments is a huge problem.
We solve this problem with our online platform for transportation analytics, StreetLight InSight®. It’s an on-demand, cloud-based web application that helps planners transform geospatial Big Data from mobile devices into transportation analytics. By combing Big Data with the processing software to make it useful in one easy-to-use platform, we make it easy for planners and engineers to get information required for data-driven infrastructure and policy planning. Instead of waiting for months to collect data at great expense, the answers are ready in just a few minutes.
3. What’s the future of smart cities?
LS: The future of smart cities means moving beyond the buzzwords and fluffy language into concrete application city operations more effectively. Truly, smart cities will focus on ensuring that the rising urban tide lifts all members of the community regardless of socioeconomic status.
4. What are the top 3 technology trends shaping cities of the future?
Trend #1: Smartphones
We’ve known that smartphones would shape the cities of the future for at least the past five years, but they’re changing cities today in ways that we did not even anticipate. Beyond the data they create, smartphones enable city dwellers to walk more, to bike more, and even to report infrastructure issues more quickly and easily to city governments. From shifting consumers away from individual car ownership to the popularity of goods deliveries services, smartphones are transforming the way we interact with the built city environment. And I don’t think they’re done changing cities yet.
Trend #2: Parklets
Smart cities aren’t just about technology. They’re about creating better quality of life in cities. Parklets are small in scale, but they’re emblematic of the extraordinary benefits that can occur if we reduce reliance on the one-car-one-person paradigm. We can reclaim real estate and establish new, shared, pleasant cultural space. With the help of smartphone-enabled technologies that make transit, biking, and walking easy and convenient, we can transform congested roadways for cars into parks for people.
Trend #3: Paint
The simplest technologies can also be the most effective. Consider the power of paint to build a city’s infrastructure. Paint can turn a four-lane road into a three-lane road with a bike lane – all it takes is the right policy to make it happen. There is so much we can transform with simple technology and force of will.
A great example of the power of paint to expand the impact of “smart city” technology is bike-sharing. I think bike sharing programs are making active transportation much easier and more convenient for the typical city resident to use – especially dockless bike shares. But to realize the full benefits of dockless bike share technology, cities also need bike lanes that help city residents stay safe when they ride.
About Laura Schewel
Laura Schewel is co-founder and CEO of StreetLight Data, a mobility analytics provider that transforms big data from mobile devices useful analytics for transportation and urban planning. As CEO, Laura helped lead the development of StreetLight InSight®, the only online platform that provides customized travel pattern analytics derived from massive mobile data to the transportation industry. She is an advocate and researcher in advanced transportation, with particular expertise in transportation systems, sustainability and safety, and vehicle/system modeling and analysis.
Prior to founding StreetLight Data, Laura worked to develop electric vehicle strategy at the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) and Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). She was a National Science Foundation Fellow, has authored several publications about sustainable transportation, was one of MIT Technology Review’s 35 Innovators Under 35, and has also won the International Transport Forum’s Young Researcher of the Year Award. Laura holds a master’s degree in Energy and Energy Resources from UC Berkeley and bachelor’s degrees in Engineering and Comparative Literature from Yale University.