The urban population of the world has grown from 751 million in 1950 to 4.2 billion in 2018 and is expected to increase further to 6.3 billion by 2050, representing more than two-thirds of the world population.
Global urbanization should drive economic opportunity, but the rapid rate of change has been breaking city infrastructure, and one of the areas that has been hardest hit is transportation. In 113 cities around the world, drivers lose more than 100 hours per year stuck in traffic. 98% percent of our 1,800+ mass transit systems lose money — about a dollar on each ride taken in New York, Boston, Chicago, and Washington; upwards of $4 in Dallas, New Jersey, Pittsburgh, and Virginia.
This already massive challenge is made immensely more difficult for public agencies by a stunning lack of data. These agencies make broad guesses at how their residents travel based on paper surveys sent to 1 in every 200 people and updated once a decade. This gives them frighteningly imprecise information to make critical decisions around transportation investments, policies, and tolls, let alone understanding and managing the impact of Ubers, Airbnbs, or scooters, whose use has exploded (likely years after the most recent data the agency has).
When we first met Nick and the Replica team at Sidewalk Labs early this year, we could immediately tell that the technology they were developing would make a night-and-day difference for public planners, analysts, and policymakers. Using modern data sources and computational/statistical techniques, they have built a modeling tool that allows these users to understand how, when, and why their population travels. This data is more granular and accurate than ever before and updated quarterly versus once in ten years to capture emerging trends and seasonal patterns. Soon, Replica will release a tool allowing cities to look forward and simulate potential scenarios — extending a rail line, adding a bus stop, building a new mall — to evaluate their impact for more informed decision-making. After less than two years, Replica is already working with major cities, states, and countries around the world.
The positive impact Replica will have on daily lives is far-reaching and long-lasting. However, the underlying location data required to build these models is one of the most personal liberties that we have, and it is imperative that any platform provides an absolute guarantee on preserving that privacy. Replica’s technology is based on the academic work of co-founder Alexei Pozdnoukhov, a pioneer in privacy-preserving methods for estimating location. From the start, Replica never touches original, identifiable data. The company then uses its de-identified data sources to generate a fully synthetic population — a new group of made-up residents that match the real world’s behavior in aggregate but do not correspond to any real person. We believe that Replica will set a new standard for how the government can use data to improve the lives of its residents while preserving their privacy and personal liberty.
The careful consideration that went into privacy and security exemplifies the thoughtfulness, dedication, and passion for doing good that drives Nick, Alexei, and the rest of the Replica team. We were honored to lead their Series A fundraise and help with their spin-out from Alphabet. We are immensely excited to partner with them to change the world of transportation. And if it takes 10 minutes off our daily commute, we won’t complain!