Posts about Technology
DC has lavished attention and subsidies on a few tech companies to bolster its economy. But the growth of tech firms in and around Dupont Circle suggests that investing in an attractive urban space is a more effective way to grow a local tech scene.
DC has a flourishing tech scene, as seen in the growth of several coworking spaces, where startups can get work done and find community. There are 5 in DC, 4 of which are in or near Dupont Circle, as are several other tech companies and the Acceleprise incubator.
But does the District attract tech companies because we subsidize firms like 1776 and LivingSocial that claim to be hubs of talent and capital? Or is it because we have invested for a decade in urban amenities and density that attracts talent and capital to places like Dupont Circle, as Richard Florida argues?
Dupont Circle has emerged as the hub of the DC tech cluster. Besides Canvas and 1776, Affinity Lab on U Street, and PunchRock in Adams Morgan provide coworking space. Several tech companies and the Acceleprise incubator also reside in the Dupont Circle area.
This cluster emerged without government assistance or backing. 1776 is an exciting coworking space that I hope is successful, but the startups laboring in these other coworking spaces seem to be just as critical to diversifying our tax base.
Today venture capital investment and startup activity also reflect the turn back to the urban core; nearly half of the [Washington] region's total (47.5 percent), or $600 million, went to the District of Columbia proper. Most of that was concentrated in a single zip code (20005) that spans McPherson Square, Thomas Circle and Logan Circle.While Gray expresses support for DC's tech sector, it sometimes looks like a search for a North Star he can follow, like Living Social, by providing subsidies and personal encouragement. Rather, tech clusters naturally emerge in dense urban areas that attract smart young people, with no single company as the hub.
I work 2 days per week at Canvas, a coworking space in Dupont Circle. I see startups there working all-nighters to build their businesses.
At minimum, it would be incredibly encouraging for more of DC's startups to get a visit from the mayor. After all, we are relying on all of these startups to diversify DC's economy beyond dependence on the federal government. After a recent tweet from Gray about visiting 1776, I replied asking why he hadn't visited any other coworking spaces.
— Vincent C. Gray (@mayorvincegray) June 7, 2013
However, DC angel investor and entrepreneur Glen Helmen recently questioned whether Gray's involvement in the tech sector is broad enough.
— Glen Hellman (@glehel) July 24, 2013
It's great that Mayor Gray is looking for investment opportunities in DC tech. And we all want 1776 and LivingSocial to be wildly successful, as they are prominent contributors to the local tech sector.
But most startups came here or decided to stay here because they like DC, not because of subsidies or Living Social or 1776. Doesn't that tell us what our strength is that we should build upon?
A better way to support and nourish the city's tech scene would be to encourage the creation of a great urban environment, by continuing the same investments in transportation and public amenities and housing and commercial space that the city has been doing for the past decade. That way, companies will have even more reasons to come here, and those who already like it will have more reasons to stay.
In the meantime, Mayor Gray would do well to show his support for all local tech companies, not just those he has strategically invested in. If he wants to visit other coworking spaces and tech firms, the mayor has a standing invitation from Canvas, and presumably from every other coworking spot.
Where do people use iPhones, Android phones, Blackberries, and other devices? In our region, it appears Android is far more popular on the east side of the region than the west:
Tom MacWright, who has written for Greater Greater Washington about open laws, made the tool for MapBox using 280 million Tweets, each of which has information about which kind of device the tweeter was using.
I initially expected to see a big blob of purple (Blackberry) in the federal core, but there is none; probably this is a combination of many federal agencies moving to iPhones, and federal workers not using their government phones for tweeting.
But really, these maps look awfully similar to the same maps of DC's demographic divides:
Update: Several commenters noted that the combined map seems to overlay iPhones over Androids, so green areas are really areas with Androids but fewer iPhones. I've added a toggle to switch between the combined map, iPhone-only, and Android-only.
The vast majority of cars being driven around the city have empty seats. Why not let people sell some of them, make some money, and provide more transportation without more traffic? One of the obstacles is that these services often run afoul of regulations designed to protect consumers.
A few companies are trying to make private ride sharing a reality. SideCar lets anyone sign up, undergo a background check and other reviews, and then become a "community driver" who can offer others rides through the service for a "donation."
This is part of a wave of startups providing what's called "collaborative consumption," where people have an economic arrangement to share a resource. There have been services like time share vacations and Zipcar car sharing for many years, where a company owns some resources and sells shares in them, but the newer trend is companies that try to help individual people sell unused capacity in stuff they own.
Airbnb, for example, lets you rent out your apartment when you're not there for extra cash, and makes it possible to find a much more affordable place to stay in busy cities where there aren't that many hotel rooms.
Regulations, however, often don't really account for individuals renting out their own stuff. They usually assume that anyone providing such services is a company that does so as its business, and can undergo inspections, file for permits, and so on. Plus, these regulatory processes try to ensure that the products are safe and healthy, that nobody's getting scammed, and so on.
The new-style collaborative consumption startups are solving the consumer protection problem in a bottom-up, social-media way: people rate buyers and sellers, and a strong reputation replaces a regulator's review. This is what eBay did to give people confidence in buying things from strangers instead of from stores or established catalog companies.
There are the occasional horror stories, but then, regulators miss things, too. But Airbnb is illegal in most cities, and some cities are cracking down, often at the behest of the hotel industry or neighbors who don't like strangers coming and going. Mainly the transactions happen outside the law's blessing, it's making buyers and sellers happy, not causing a lot of trouble, and eventually cities will probably adjust laws to come to terms with it.
What does this mean for ride sharing? Taxi rides are a particularly heavily-regulated area, with powerful driver lobbies that want to restrict the supply of rides. They weren't happy about Uber, and really won't be happy with ride sharing.
Plus, regulators have some legitimate fears. Cars can be really dangerous. Is it important to give people assurance they're riding in a safe one? You're under the physical control of another person. How can we be sure that person isn't going to do bad things? A woman has accused an Uber driver of raping her; police investigated, but prosecutors aren't pressing charges.
Are these roles the government should play? With Uber, many people argued that regulators ought to ensure the driver is well trained, properly licensed, and not a threat. They should ensure the car is safe and well-maintained. But don't regulate the prices, since people can choose to ride Uber or not and don't need the government to decide how much it should cost.
Now, ride sharing companies are essentially trying to take the next step. Must the drivers all have commercial licenses and commercial vehicles? Or can we let anyone sign up to give others rides? Can the companies, like SideCar, self-regulate?
Certainly it's in SideCar's, and Airbnb's, and Uber's interest to be sure everyone is safe. SideCar has extensive safety information on its site. One theory is that these companies will make sure it's safe, or else go out of business. After all, it's easy to spread a bad experience on Twitter, so even a small number of problems could earn the company a bad reputation.
The DC Taxicab Commission isn't ready to embrace this. Having just created regulations for sedan drivers that regulate much less than they are used to, they'll need more outside pressure if they're going to let ridesharing get an even lighter regulatory touch. And should they?
Downtown DC Business Improvement District employees use a hand-held geographic information system (GIS) to track public space problems like broken fire hydrants. Could this technology also help DC government employees, like trash collectors?
ESRI, the company that makes the most commonly-used GIS software in the United States, has a quarterly newsletter called ArcNews. The spring issue has a story about a custom program that BID employees use to report issues with the trash cans, park benches, bus shelters, and other public assets in the BID.
The program sounds like a more sophisticated version of the SeeClickFix application that is re-skinned and rebranded as the DC311 app. The 311 app is buggy and could use work to make it more useful, but it's limited in scope and meant for the public to simply report issues, not address the process from start to finish. The application for the BID employees appears to do just that.
I've often watched DC Department of Public Works (DPW) employees in the morning picking up trash in the alley. There are two guys riding on the back of the truck and one driver. Once in the alley, the two employees who jump off the back of the truck methodically empty the supercans into the truck, while the driver slowly trundles the truck down the alley.
What if the driver had a dash-mounted tablet with a program similar to the one the BID workers have? Perhaps he could quickly note things like illegally dumped furniture, potholes, or broken supercan lids.
With a program like the one the BID has, these DPW employees could be an early-warning system for the department, hitting a button to record the location of any of these issues that DPW would have to deal with. It seems like this could be an efficient way to asses problems that the department would need to deal with anyway. The increased workload could be connected to a bonus system of sorts. Drivers that find the most legitimate problems that need to be addressed could receive a commensurate pay increase.
In addition, perhaps some of the features in this program could filter down to the DC311 app in a future update.
Say you're moving to the area, have a job, and want to find places with good transit to work. How do you figure it out? A lot of people just look at the Metro map and don't consider other modes, but a new service called AutNo is trying to help people locate near transit.
This is actually a problem I hear often. A family friend moved to DC a couple of years ago, for a job at PriceWaterhouseCoopers in Tysons. The Silver Line was still a few years off, but he wanted to live in a vibrant, urban neighborhood. Where should he go?
The bus maps are daunting to decipher. It took me a couple of hours to really puzzle through the combinations and cross-reference it with my general knowledge of housing prices in various neighborhoods.
Boston-based AutNo tries to help by putting rental listings and trip planning together in one interface. You can view available rentals (it doesn't have places for sale, yet), click on one, and see transit directions to your office or another location you specify.
The about page reads:
AutNo is the first apartment search designed and developed specifically for people without cars. For the first time since the automobile was invented, the percentage of Americans who drive to school or work is on the decline. Gas prices are skyrocketing and automobile carbon emissions are contributing to global warming. Commuting and living without an automobile is the way of the future for many people. AutNo is dedicated to helping these people find apartments.It will also show driving routes to work, too, if you want them.
You can narrow down results by price and number of bedrooms. A future feature that would be helpful is to also let people restrict the searches by travel time. That way, you could say that you want a place under $2,000 a month that's no more than a 45 minute trip to work, or whatever.
Basically, combine this with Mapnificent:
And, at the risk of sounding like a broken record: this is why open data is valuable. A transit agency might build a great app, but they're never going to build a mash-up of real estate data and transit data. When it's easy to put transit routing into an app, you not only can build apps that give people transit routing, but tools and apps that combine transit routing with almost anything else.
Update: I hadn't know it, but WalkScore actually has this exact Mapnificent-style feature. You can filter apartment listings by transit distance to a point:
However, when you click on an apartment, WalkScore does not show you the transit routing with trains and buses you would take, while AutNo does. Without that information, people won't as easily learn which buses might work best for them or be able to judge whether a location is really likely as acessible from transit as the system says.
It would be best to have both at once on the same site; as it is now, I'd recommend that people use a combination of both tools for their search.
A Metro rider, Barbara, wrote in to Unsuck DC Metro about a problem where she added funds to SmarTrip online but then still couldn't go through a faregate. What's going on is one of the unfortunate consequences of the 1990s-era faregate systems WMATA is still using.
I had added funds online on March 4. I didn't use my card before March 18, and when I did, I had to realize that there was still only 20 cents on my card, and the $50 I had added at the beginning of the month were nowhere to be seen. ...
I couldn't use them for riding because the funds wouldn't load, and I couldn't even go through the turnstile with them. So, what I did was use my credit card to add $20 to my card (I didn't have any cash on me), entered Foggy Bottom, exited at Ballston and: voilà! there were $68 on my card all of a sudden.
This is obviously frustrating to infrequent riders who load up funds ahead of time for when they ride, or use automatic loading to ensure their card is never low on funds. But the automatic or remote loading may not work.
This happens because of the way the (fairly outdated) SmarTrip system works. When you add funds to your SmarTrip card online or automatically, the funds don't appear in your Smartrip account immediately because your balance is actually stored encrypted on the card rather than on a computer.
Adding funds online sends an instruction to the SmarTrip system to watch for your card. The next time a faregate or bus farebox reads your card, it will have information about what you added, and will load the funds onto your card.
The load instructions get copied to faregates and bus fareboxes throughout the system, but because these machines are not in constant communication (like bus fareboxes), it may take several days for the instructions to reach a farebox you use.
But Barbara waited more than a few days. What happened? She wrote:
I called SmarTrip, and they didn't have a plausible explanation: All I learned was that this could happen "with infrequent use of the card." What the heck does that mean? It shouldn't matter how frequently I use the cardHere's what's going on. The faregates have their list of SmarTrip cards that are waiting for new funds already loaded online. Unfortunately, the outdated faregates have limited computer memory (that fact restricted peak-of-the-peak, for example). They can only store so many load instructions.
— it's my money on there, it's just not in my bank any longer, it's on their card!
Spokesperson Dan Stessel said:
Each target [the SmarTrip computer system in the faregates] can hold a maximum of 85,000 auto loads. When that number is exceeded, the system has to localize, meaning the system will send your auto load purchase to every station you've used in the past month.Furthermore, based on the SmarTrip customer service response, it sounds like if you load online but then don't use the system soon after, newer load instructions may crowd yours out.
Either the Ballston gate had the instruction and Foggy Bottom did not. (Barbara said that she lives in Arlington, so Ballston is probably the station she uses most.) Alternately, once Barbara loaded her card at a machine and then entered the rail system, the central system retransmitted her load instruction to the faregates. Then when she exited, the gate at Ballston knew to add her funds.
This whole mechanism of getting the load instruction onto the faregates ahead of time is fairly messy. It would be better if, when you went onto the system, the faregate could just check your balance with a central server, but the faregates don't have a high-speed, always-on connection to a central server to accomplish this.
WMATA is studying new fare payment systems. Any new system ought to fix this irritating problem, but it may be quite some time before a new system actually comes on line.
Meanwhile, it might make sense for more infrequent riders to use the vending machines, especially if they let their cards get very low.
A few years ago, the only way to get a taxi was to hail one on the street or call a phone number with sometimes-uncertain results. Now there are a wealth of smartphone-based options like Uber's UberTaxi, myTaxi, and Taxi Magic. Have you used them?
Left to right: Taxi Magic, Uber, and myTaxi renderings on iPhones.
Images from the app manufacturers.
I've recently been trying out Uber's new UberTaxi service, which calls regular taxis rather than black car sedans. You can see how far away the nearest taxis are from the app, and easily request one.
The best elements of Uber's service are that the cabs are in very good shape, compared to many DC cabs, and when you get to your destination, you just step out without worrying about money at all. Uber emails a ride receipt with a map of your trip so you can be sure you weren't swindled.
I've used it 3 times, from home to a destination downtown, then back from downtown, and another late night from an area near downtown. Even though I could have often walked a few blocks to find a cab, using Uber the cab came right to me; only one time did the cab have any trouble, when I was at the Wilson Building (1350 Pennsylvania Avenue) and he had to call to figure out which side of the building I was on. But he was easily able to call, so the Uber system clearly makes it simple to work out these kinds of confusions.
Uber charges an automatic 20% tip,
though one driver I spoke to said Uber keeps all of that as their fee. Update: Erik Weber (now working for Uber) says this is incorrect, and 100% of the tip goes to the driver (though the driver does pay Uber an undisclosed amount).
UberTaxi is only available inside DC right now, while its original black cars can pick people up in the suburbs. There seems to be little reason not to pick the taxi mode over the sedan mode, unless you really want extra luxury or there aren't taxis around. (For example, on a recent trip to Uber's home of San Francisco, coming back to the hotel from the ballpark neighborhood, there were sedans but no taxis.)
When I need a taxi to National Airport, I've been using Taxi Magic, which lets you request a DC Yellow Cab, Arlington Red Top, Montgomery Barwood, or Alexandria Yellow Cab. You can also pay by credit card, though you take the step of paying from the cab (or pay the driver directly).
My experiences with DC Yellow Cabs via Taxi Magic were not so great, so I've been calling Red Tops instead, which work fine. Taxi Magic lets you request a cab for a time in the future, which is good for airport rides. The one thing that could be better is that when the taxi arrives ahead of time, as it often does (that's a good thing), the system calls you and you can press a key to tell the cab you're on your way out. But if the cab is 15 minutes early, it'll just keep calling every couple minutes.
myTaxi launched late last year; it is affiliated with car2go and has been doing cross-promotions for people to use both services.
I started to download the app but am uncomfortable with the fact that on Android, it wants access to all of my contacts. Android has dealt with security by making apps disclose which permissions they need, and you can choose to download the app or not. Unfortunately, a lot of apps need some fairly intrusive-seeming permissions for minor features of the app that you might never use.
There's no way to decline just one permission (and if you could, it might crash the apps unless developers always accounted for that possibility) and app developers don't have much incentive to provide a core app with few permissions and then separate add-ons you can download.
Have you tried myTaxi? What about Uber, Taxi Magic, or something else? How has the experience worked for you?
- Metro maps out loop line between DC and Arlington
- It's fine to not build parking at Tysons Metro stations
- Alexandria board rejects King Street bike lanes
- Ask Congress to give DC self-rule on building heights
- Arlington considers using fees to reduce parking
- DC sports spaces give short shrift to girls
- Sexist Metro ad asks "Can't we just talk about shoes?"