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Capital Metro could get into the ‘smart city’ game

Monday, July 10, 2017 by Caleb Pritchard

Austin’s transit agency is working toward a pilot project that would use wireless technology to complement its bus service and bolster multimodal options in downtown.

Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority Chief Information Officer Joe Iannello confirmed to the Austin Monitor recently that the agency is in talks with a group of private firms and one nonprofit that could end up deploying Bluetooth-enabled beacons that will detect and communicate with smartphone users along Second Street.

The beacons will send out “browser-based push notifications about bus schedules, delays, route changes, events, activities, alerts, news and information from other ACUP partners,” according to a press release published on behalf of Connecthings, the company that would operate the beacons.

ACUP, or Austin CityUP, is a relatively new nonprofit booster of so-called “smart city” initiatives that leverage new technologies to hoover up massive amounts of data that can then be used to guide policies. Iannello is a member of ACUP’s board of directors, as is Sherri Greenberg, a professor at the University of Texas’ LBJ School of Public Affairs and adviser to Mayor Steve Adler. Another potential partner in the proposed Smart 2nd Street project is RATP Dev, the parent company of Capital Metro contractor McDonald Transit Associates.

Louis-Alban Batard-Dupré, Connecthings’ vice president of sales for North America, explained the workings of the project to the Monitor when he was in town for the Smart Cities Connect Conference and Expo last month.

“The idea is to be able to detect mobile users that have Capital Metro’s app and other apps and anticipate their needs, depending on their preferences in the application using real-time data,” he said. For example, the beacons will be able to send push notifications about bus arrival times to riders at specific stops.

If a bus is running late, the beacons could then send out notifications of other nearby alternatives.

“Our job is to link it to the other services so that when the bus is arriving late or later than normal, you have options,” Batard-Dupré said. “So it could be bicycle option, it could be taxis, or it could be carpooling or car-sharing.”

Capital Metro’s Iannello told the Monitor that there are still some kinks to be worked out before any pilot starts. Of particular concern, he said, is engineering the service so that it doesn’t become a nuisance.

“The thing that we would obviously want to avoid is getting a flood of notifications to the same people during the same time frame of the day,” said Iannello.

Batard-Dupré said that the beacons will only push notifications from participating apps that users have already downloaded and that superfluous advertising is not part of Connecthings’ business model. Furthermore, all data collected by the beacons will remain anonymous.

For the time being, the beacons – which will be provided by tech firm Bluecats, which has an office in Austin – would be installed along Second Street but Capital Metro’s role would be limited to one station nearby. Capital Metro does not run any buses along Second Street and most of the busier routes have stops closer to Fourth Street. Iannello said that ACUP selected the corridor for the pilot rather than Capital Metro.

“I think they picked that not because of public transportation availability but simply because it was downtown, it’s around City Hall, and there are other interesting aspects in that area,” he said.

Iannello said the Smart 2nd Street project could launch this summer.

Photo by Andrew Nourse made available through a Creative Commons license.

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