Making Tech Work for Cities, Not Against Them

Lacuna Technologies
Sep 23 · 9 min read

By Hugh Martin, CEO of Lacuna

In 2009, I learned I was dying from Multiple Myeloma, a rare form of blood cancer. At the time, I was the CEO of a DNA sequencing company called Pacific Biosciences and preparing to take the company public.

I was lucky — and able to take advantage of a number of new therapies that had recently become available. By April of 2010, I was in remission, and by October of 2010, PacBio was public.

But I was not the same person. My illness forced me to confront more than just my fragility and mortality. I was aware of how transactional my life had become. Professional success on its own had an empty quality for me now.

This gave birth to a new quest for something much more meaningful. I wanted to make a difference that went beyond how I had previously defined success and to use the skills I had built to find ways to affect real, positive change in the world.

After PacBio, I started a company called Sensity Systems. We had the mission of creating safer, more engaging communities through smart city technology, which we sold to Verizon in 2016. While I was there, I got to spend a lot of time with cities and their departments of transportation, and I came to realize two important things:

1) City governments care deeply about what they do. They work hard every day to help better the lives of people. Coming from the world of technology where success is measured in sales or profits, this was inspiring.

2) Most companies fail to fully grasp cities’ most serious challenges and are instead focused on selling the products or services they have in order to achieve some business goal.

Put simply, cities serve the public, while companies must serve their shareholders.

The Big Challenges Cities Face

We have all witnessed the disruption that private companies have caused in transportation, both with fantastic benefits and an array of unintended consequences. From ride hailing services to scooters to autonomous vehicles, all mobility companies are dependent on the public right of way, a space that historically has been the domain of transportation and public works agencies.

This ongoing disruption of urban transportation creates dual challenges for cities. They have the forward-looking challenge of preparing their infrastructure and ecosystems for an unknown future of autonomous vehicles, flying taxis, sidewalk delivery bots and who knows what else, as well as the current challenge to develop new regulatory approaches to successfully integrate e-scooters and to account for ever-increasing on-demand delivery services. All of this on top of delivering their core services to urban residents and allowing each of us to bike, walk, scoot, ride, and drive where we want, when we want, every day, safely and reliably.

If managed poorly, this new landscape could lead to increased congestion, safety concerns, increased demands on sidewalks and curbs, and it will leave low-income citizens stranded.

But, if managed well, this evolving transportation landscape can provide convenience, new business opportunities, emission reductions and accessible, affordable transportation for all communities. It will allow the public to travel for better jobs, secure more education opportunities, receive better services, and improve overall quality of life.

It is clear that this new landscape requires a new digital software environment to enable cities to better manage transportation challenges amid the age of digital-powered mobility.

Cities know well where they need to go and what their challenges are, but they need to accelerate the development and use of new tools to manage this additional complexity. Technology providers, however, traditionally have had economic interests that are aligned with their shareholders, not with the best interests of cities and their residents. It is not only that cities need new and better digital tools to effect all this change, but also that these tools must be cost effective and widely available so that everyone can benefit.

I wondered — is there a way for the private sector to better support the creation of technologies cities truly need?

The Three Big Problems We Faced

With this new perspective, after leaving Verizon in October of 2018, I wanted to contribute my experience in building technology companies and teams of great entrepreneurs, but this time in the service of cities. We started a new company named “Lacuna”, which is Latin for “an unfilled space or interval; a gap”, to develop a plan.

Our challenge was to find a way to supply cities what they needed in ways that would work for them. Helping to build the tools and technology for cities would mean Lacuna would need to raise money, find great people, and — most importantly — take a fresh approach.

Given our unique vision and values, we faced three big problems:

1) We didn’t want to sell cities a proprietary platform solution.

Many big consulting firms already sell proprietary, multi-year, multi-million dollar locked-in platform solutions. We believe these work against the long-term interests of cities and their constituents. And, since each city might make a different vendor decision, you could end up with one city using proprietary solution “A” and a neighboring or nearby city using proprietary solution “B”, with little compatibility between them to serve the people that regularly travel between communities.

2) We would not monetize what is rightfully city and citizen data.

Other companies were offering to aggregate mobility data obtained directly from mobility providers with proprietary software solutions. This provides cities an important service, but it prevents cities from carrying out the proper stewardship of their citizens’ data and protection of individual privacy that is rightfully the city’s responsibility to manage. We felt there can be a better way to deliver data-driven actions that are respectful and protective of individual privacy.

3) We would be disruptive and willing to go against status quo, which meant established players might work against these ends.

Sure enough, since entering the space, some established industry players have been skeptical. Lacuna believes that in the long run we are creating a much bigger marketplace with universal standards and a shared global platform. This means more opportunity for everyone; not less.

I’ll get to the solution to these problems in a minute. First, a word about how we discovered the solution.

A Timely Introduction

It was clear that to enable transportation agencies, Lacuna would need DNA steeped in advanced software systems technology.

We would also need a deep understanding of cities’ needs and their existing methods of operation. Long term, we would need to help cities with technical implementation and support; overall transportation technology strategy and collaboration on complex topics like policy development. In other words, we would need to build a highly capable, global professional services organization.

In a fortuitous moment, I met John Ellis, the founder of the consulting firm Ellis & Associates (E&A). At the time, E&A was under contract with the Los Angeles Department of Transportation (LADOT) serving as their Transportation 2.0 Program Manager and had just delivered the transportation technology Strategic Implementation Plan (SIP) to LADOT. As a result of getting to know John and his team’s work, it became clear that Lacuna and E&A shared our same vision for urban mobility and that we could help each other fulfill that vision.

In December of 2018, and with the approval of the city of LA, we acquired E&A and began operating it as a wholly owned, independent subsidiary with the same goal of delivering Transportation 2.0 efforts for LADOT. Long term, the acquisition helps us expand and deepen our professional services offering to better serve our city clients.

Together we wanted to enable a world where:

● Cities have equal access to the best mobility software tools at little or no cost;

● An open marketplace allows cities to leverage the best vendors; and

● City residents have an improved quality of life, greater equity and their privacy is respected and protected.

Towards a Solution for Cities

From the 2017 Blueprint for Autonomous Vehicles advanced by the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) to LADOT’s 2016 Urban Mobility in a Digital Age, city officials have been envisioning and planning for future modes of transportation for quite some time.

Cities have also shown broad, global interest in using established sets of Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) to connect with mobility providers. These valuable tools, in open source, continue to gain widespread adoption. For example, the General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS) has been adopted by more than 1,000 transit agencies over the last decade and the Mobility Data Specification (MDS) is now used by over 70 cities. Similarly, the General Bikeshare Feed Specification (GBFS) has been in use for bike share systems. And this year, we’ve seen the formation of the Open Mobility Foundation (OMF), a global, non-profit coalition led by cities committed to using well-designed, open source technology to evolve how they manage transportation in the modern era.

This is all to say that we continue to see cities embrace and drive this growing need for common interfaces, tools, and practices to better manage all forms of transportation and support the widest range of transportation technology providers.

While open source software has been adopted by cities more recently, it has been a key component of the technology ecosystem for decades, helping bring benefits to enterprises and consumers alike. The most well known is of these is Linux.

Linux is an open source operating system governed by the Linux Foundation, where the actual software code may be used, modified, and distributed by anyone. Linux has the largest installed base of all general-purpose operating systems in the world, including products like Android phones, web servers, and virtually all supercomputers. It has succeeded because of its security, reliability, low cost, and freedom from vendor lock-in.

Realizing that the solution set for mobility in cities would revolve around both software technology and open source, I believed there could be an important role for me and Lacuna to play.

But What is Lacuna’s Role in this Space?

We focus on our belief in cities as our north star. Our approach is remarkably simple.

We make it easy for cities to navigate the technology maze of new mobility.

Here’s how we do it:

Lacuna bridges the knowledge gap between transportation experts and technology experts. We help people who manage the physical right-of-way to manage it digitally with open source software tools, including those provided by the OMF.

As with the Linux community, a wide variety of companies will participate in this new, open source ecosystem:

● Application developers that provide cities with rich functionality to manage the new digital aspects of the public right-of-way;

● Third-party service providers for functions like mapping; and

● Companies focused on delivering the underlying systems as a service with customized systems integration, security hardening and testing, and 24/7 support.

We are the third category above. Lacuna partners with transportation agencies as a services provider to plug them into the new world of open source transportation solutions.

Implementing and operating open source software comes with its own challenges. Lacuna eases this transition by providing operation, integration, and support for transportation agencies and their goals. By providing services such as systems integration, security hardening, and 24/7/365 support, Lacuna helps cities more easily and readily leverage available open source mobility software — such as the GTFS, MDS or GBFS, and open source mapping standards- to improve outcomes, reduce costs, and avoid vendor lock-in.

Now for the Difficult Part

The road is not paved for this vision. There are real and significant problems for us and cities to solve together.

Public-Private partnership at this level of integration and around open source software is new for transportation applications in cities.

Some existing transportation providers are loath to accept oversight or intrusion into what has been the “wild west” for their business. As with any disruption, those who feel adversely affected fight back and resist change. Therefore, questions have been, and will be, raised about undue complexity, privacy, and readiness of cities to embrace sophisticated technology.

Many of these issues are valid and must be addressed. However, they should be addressed in the context of “how do we solve these issues in service of cities”, rather than, “let’s just stay with the status quo.”

Some large companies are even pursuing regulatory pre-emption at the state or federal level to prevent cities from managing what is rightly their mission and responsibility. In doing so, they seek to serve their own business interests, and unfortunately, they would do so to the detriment of the individuals who rely on all forms of transportation.

The intensity and sophistication of these challenges is directly proportional to what is at stake. The fundamental question is really:

Who will manage the public realm for transportation for the next one hundred years?

Will it be cities, on behalf of their citizens, or will it be transportation technology companies, on behalf of their shareholders?

I know what I believe, and I am giving my all to something that matters. Something that can really make a difference for people.

Lacuna Technologies

Written by

Lacuna works with cities to better manage transportation through open-source solutions. Find out more at lacuna.ai and @TechLacuna

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