Posts from hacking government

Mapping A City

My friend Ro Gupta co-founded and runs a company called Carmera which makes real-time HD maps for the autonomous driving market.

They do this by operating “an owned and professionally crowdsourced vehicular sensor network” (ie Google StreetView) which captures real-time data about what is happening at street level.

In an announcement they made today, they describe a partnership with the City of New York in which they “will share data with the NYC Department of Transportation, including historical pedestrian density analytics and real-time construction detection events. In turn, we’ll gain access to key city data sets that allow all parties to work together to improve the accuracy of street inventories while doing our part to increase private-public transparency.”

This is an example of a pedestrian density map of the west village in NYC, where we live.

This is an example of a growing trend I am seeing where tech companies, which traditionally have wanted to “do it ourselves”, are partnering with the broader ecosystem (large companies, governments, public agencies, etc) to build more comprehensive data sets.

It is also an example of goverments and other large bureaucracies getting more comfortable sharing their data and being more open to working with startups and the broader tech sector.

This is a very hopeful trend.

We have significant problems to solve in the coming decades around a warming planet, overloaded and failing transportation systems and urban infrastructure, and many other things.

If all sectors of society come together to work on these problems, we stand a much better chance of solving them.

Funding Friday: The L-Ternative Bridge

Every day 300,000 people take the L train to and from work. I am not sure if that is 300,000 people or 150,000 people going in and out, but either way, it’s a lot of people.

And the MTA is going to shut down the L train for 15 months, starting in April 2019.

So this is a big deal for NYC, and a big deal for NYC tech companies. In an informal and unscientific poll I took this week of NYC tech company CEOs, about 20-25% of the employees of NYC tech companies in Manhattan take the L train to work.

So how are these people going to commute for those 15 months (which is almost certainly going to take longer than 15 months)?

The best answer I have heard from the NYC government is “more buses going over the Williamsburg bridge.” Which is an option but not a fantastic option. The Williamsburg bridge is already a crowded transportation mode during the morning and evening rush hours and more buses means something is going to have to give.

So this week, I saw this cool project pop up on Kickstarter.

Take just one minute and watch this video:

Pretty cool, right?

My dad was an Army Corp of Engineers officer his entire career and retired a Brigadier General. He knows a lot about pontoon bridges. So I asked him if this idea is viable. He said:

Fred,
Having built several pontoon bridges, including some designed for 60-ton tanks, I know the idea is feasible.
(One of my bridges was across the Rhine River.  That was done for the first time by Julius Caesar.)
Drawbacks:  they are expensive, have low speed limits, and require constant maintenance.
Still, if the permanent solution in that location can’t handle traffic for some time, this could be a temporary replacement.
Interesting idea. Thanks for sharing it with me.
Love, Dad
That’s all I need to know that this will work. My dad knows his stuff when it comes to pontoon bridges.
So if you want to see this idea get some traction, go to Kickstarter and support this project like I did this week.

Net Neutrality Day Of Action

Today, July 12th, is the Net Neutrality Day Of Action.

More than 70,000 websites, online services, and Internet users are participating including Twitter, Amazon, Netflix, Kickstarter, Etsy, Reddit, OK Cupid, Airbnb, Facebook, Google, Spotify, Soundcloud, Mozilla and AVC.

The grassroots power of the Internet is how we won the strong net neutrality rules that are now in place and are threatened by the new leadership at the FCC. The big telcos have their people in power now. But we can keep fighting with our grassroots efforts. They have worked in the past and I hope they will continue to work to keep the Internet an open and level playing field for everyone.

If you want to participate with your website, blog, or social media profile, go here and join this online protest.

Decentralized Self-Organizing Systems

Mankind has been inventing new ways to organize and govern since we showed up on planet earth. Our history is a gradual evolution of these organization and governance systems. Much of what we are using right now was invented in ancient Greece and perfected in western Europe in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries.

I have been thinking for some time that we are on the cusp of something new. I don’t know exactly what it will be but I think it will be inspired by the big technological innovations of the late 20th century and early 21st century and it will be based on decentralized and self-organizing systems.

The Internet is, at its core, a scaled decentralized system. Its design has been a resounding success. It has scaled elegantly and gradually to well over 2bn users over fifty years. No central entity controls the Internet and it upgrades itself and scales itself slowly over time.

Open source software development communities are also an important development of the past fifty years. These communities come together to create and maintain new software systems and are not financed or governed by traditional corporate models. The goals of these communities are largely based on delivering new capabilities to the market and they don’t have capitalist based incentive systems and they have shown that in many instances they work better than traditional corporate models, Linux being the best example.

And, for the past decade or so, we have seen that modern cryptography and some important computer science innovations have led to decentralized blockchain systems, most notably Bitcoin and Ethereum. But there are many more to study and learn from. These blockchain systems are pushing forward our understanding of economic models, governance models, and security models.

I think it is high time that political scientists, philosophers, economists, and historians turn their attention to these new self-organizing and self-governing systems. Maybe they have and I am not familiar with the work. If so, please point me to it. If not, maybe this post and others like it will be an inspiration for the liberal arts to catch up to the computer scientists and mathematicians or at least work closely with them to figure out what is next, to articulate it and put it in the context of other governance and economic systems. From that work can come progress that mankind needs to move beyond the current systems, which work, but have many flaws and are becoming stale and in need of an upgrade.

Hacking Elections

I spent the last twenty minutes reading this long and well reported NY Times story on the Russian hacking efforts during the recent Presidential Election.

If you read one thing today, I recommend you read this.

We have been engaged in information warfare with other countries for years. This is not a new thing. But, I believe, we have now witnessed how powerful information warfare is and we have witnessed its potential to change the global political landscape.

If I am comforted, and I am not sure that I am, it is with the knowledge that we are doing the same things to them that they are doing to us.

As the ancient proverb says, “he who lives by the sword dies by the sword”, and the sword of our times is information.

SXSL

The White House is hosting a “festival of ideas, art, and action” today on the South Lawn (the SL in SXSL). We will have someone from USV there to participate.

If you want to check in on what is happening, you can watch the live stream on YouTube which I have embedded here.

Video Of The Week: Citibike Rage

AVC regular Rob Underwood sent me this video a couple days ago:

This happened at a Community Board 6 (Cobble Hill Brooklyn) meeting this week. Here’s a news report that explains the context of what happened here.

I am posting this for several reasons.

I am a huge Citibike fan and user. I’ve already used it three times today and its only 8:30am

citibike

Citibike has made living in the city so much better for me in so many ways. So I am thrilled that Citibike is expanding in NYC and becoming available to new neighborhoods and providing Citibike access to new neighborhoods.

But I realize that not everyone is a fan of bikes, bike lanes, and bike stations. This man certainly is not.

The anger and resentment this man is feeling is an example of how many are feeling in the US (and the world) right now. Things are changing around him and not for the better, at least for him. It’s worth mentioning that he was initially set off because there were no american flags on display at the community board meeting. If you want to understand the appeal of Donald Trump, this man might help you do that.

Finally, a suggestion. Why doesn’t Citibike offer free monthly passes for all residents of homes and buildings that are next to a Citibike station? And why doesn’t Citibike allow these homes and buildings request a Citibike station next to their building so that they can obtain this benefit?

Rob has a Citibike station in front of his house and he is mostly happy about it. I would love a Citibike station in front of my house. I realize not everyone feels this way. But if you provide some incentives for having one, the folks that are open to it would compete for it and the folks that are not open would likely not have to have one. It would be worth trying this in a new neighborhood and seeing if it works.

Local government and politics is not easy. But finding ways to move forward in ways that people can accept and get behind is the work that must be done. Staying put is certainly not the answer, as much as some would like to do that.

Mission Driven Founders

I’ve written many times about how I/we prefer to invest in mission driven founders vs mercenary founders. The former starts a company because they see a problem they feel compelled to fix. The latter starts a company because they see an opportunity to make money. There is nothing wrong with the latter. It is likely the reason that the vast majority of companies are started. But we prefer to invest in the former because there is an extra something going for a founder who starts with a mission. It leads to more tenacity, more passion, more feel for the product and market, and ultimately a higher probability of success.

For role models for the mission driven founder we need to look no farther than the founding fathers and the opening line of the Declaration of Independence, published 240 years ago today:

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary

The key word being necessary. These people had had enough and NEEDED to forge a new path.

So when thinking about starting a company, ask yourself if it is necessary. That will tell you a lot.

What Happened In 2015

Last year in my What Just Happened post, I said:

the social media phase of the Internet ended

I think we can go further than that now and say that sometime in the past year or two the consumer internet/social/mobile gold rush ended.

Look  at the top 25 apps in the US:

top 25 apps

The top 6 mobile apps and 8 of the top 9 are owned by Facebook and Google. 10 of the top 12 mobile apps are owned by Apple, Facebook, and Google.

There isn’t a single “startup” on that list and the youngest company on that list is Snapchat which is now over four years old.

We are now well into a consolidation phase where the strong are getting stronger and it is harder than ever to build a large consumer user base. It is reminiscent of the late 80s/early 90s after Windows emerged as the dominant desktop environment and Microsoft started to use that dominant market position to move up the stack and take share in all of the important application categories. Apple and Google are doing that now in mobile, along with Facebook which figured out how to be as critical on your phone as your operating system.

I am certain that something will come along, like the Internet did in the mid 90s, to bust up this oligopoly (which is way better than a monopoly). But it is not yet clear what that thing is.

2015 saw some of the candidates for the next big thing underwhelm. VR is having a hard time getting out of the gates. Wearables and IoT have yet to go mainstream. Bitcoin and the Blockchain have yet to give us a killer app. AI/machine learning has great potential but also gives incumbents with large data sets (Facebook and Google) scale advantages over newcomers.

The most exciting things that have happened in tech in 2015 are happening in verticals like transportation, hospitality, education, healthcare, and maybe more than anything else, finance, where the lessons and playbooks of the consumer gold rush are being used with great effectiveness to disrupt incumbents and shake up industries.

The same is true of the enterprise which also had a great year in 2015. Slack, and Dropbox before it, shows how powerful a consumerish approach to the enterprise can be. But there aren’t many broad horizontal plays in the enterprise and verticals seems to be where most of the action was in 2015.

I’m hopeful that 2015 will also go down as the year we buried the Unicorn. The whole notion that getting a billion dollar price tag on your company was something necessary to matter, to be able to recruit, to be able to get press, etc, etc, is worshiping a false god. And we all know what happens to those who do that.

As I look back over 2014 and 2015, I feel like these two years were an inflection point, where the underlying fundamentals of opportunity in tech slowed down but the capital rushing to get invested in tech did not. That resulted in the Unicorn phase, which if it indeed is over, will be followed by an unwinding phase where the capital flows will need to line up more tightly to the opportunity curve.

I’m now moving into “What Will Happen” which is for tomorrow, so I will end this post now by saying goodbye to 2015 and hopefully to much of the nonsense that came with it.

I did not touch on the many important things that happened outside of tech in 2015, like the rise of terrorism in the western world, and the reaction of the body politic to it, particularly here in the US with the 2016 Presidential campaign getting into full swing. That certainly touches the world of tech and will touch it even more in the future. Again, something to talk about tomorrow.

I wish everyone a happy and healthy new year and we will talk about the future, not the past, tomorrow.

Some Thoughts On Labor On Labor Day

When one looks back over the history of the development of the modern economy from the agricultural age, to the industrial age, to the information age, the development of a strong labor movement has to be one of the signature events. Capitalism, taken to its excesses, does not allocate economic value fairly to all participants in the economic system. The workers, slaving away to build the railroad, the skyscraper, etc, provide real and substantial value to the overall system and yet, because they are commodified and interchangeable parts, they don’t always get their fair share of the economic value they help to create. So the labor movement provides the market power that each worker individually cannot provide.

The emergence of the middle class in the developed world in the 19th and 20th centuries has as much to do with the emergence of a labor movement as it has to do with anything. And a growing middle class in turn drove economic development as the obtained earning power was spent on needs like homes, cars, education, etc.

I am a fan of the idea that labor needs a mechanism to obtain market power as a counterbalance to the excesses of markets and capitalism. I think we can look back and see all the good that has come from a strong labor movement in the US over the past 150 years.

However, like all bureaucratic institutions, the “Union” mechanism appears anachronistic sitting here in the second decade of the 21st century. We are witnessing the sustained unwinding of 19th and 20th century institutions that were built at a time when transaction and communications costs were high and the overhead of bureaucracy and institutional inertia were costs that were unavoidable.

One has to think “if I were constructing a labor movement from scratch in 2015, how would I do it?”  My colleague Nick Grossman coined the term “Union 2.0” inside our firm to talk about all the organizing tools coming to market to assist workers in the “gig economy.” But I think Union 2.0 is way bigger than the gig economy. The NY Times has a piece today on workers in a carwash in Santa Fe organizing outside of the traditional union system. One can imagine leveraging technology, communications, and marketplaces to allow such a thing on a much larger scale.

I don’t know how much the traditional union system taxes workers to provide the market power they need. But if its like any other hierarchical system that we are seeing replaced by networks and markets, the take rates are in the 20-40% range and could be lowered to sub 5% with technology.

That’s a big deal. And I suspect we will see just that happen in my lifetime. I sure hope so.