Analytics & Data Cities Internet of Things

Smart Neighborhood Data Can Help Small Business

An MIT student installs sensors in Downtown Crossing, Boston, as part of an effort to generate data to help small businesses. (Photo courtesy GoDaddy.com)

An MIT student installs sensors in Downtown Crossing, Boston, as part of an effort to generate data to help small businesses. Author Reinsberg will join a Media Lab colleague to talk about the effort at Techonomy NYC on May 26. (Photo courtesy GoDaddy.com)

I love walking around cities, especially places I’ve lived before, like Boston, London, Seoul, and Berlin. From the ground level and on foot, I can easily see how each of these cities are changing in ways big and small.

I particularly enjoy going back and revisiting my favorite haunts, like Savenor’s Market in Boston’s Beacon Hill or The Garrison, a gastro pub a few blocks from where I lived in London’s Bermondsey neighborhood. I get excited when my favorite places remain true to what I felt was special or unique about them years or even decades ago.

I think about the people in the neighborhoods who work at the boutiques, restaurants, and stores, and try to put them in the context of the changes happening all around them. These small businesses often have only a handful of employees and yet a list of priorities as long as their ambitions.

Meanwhile, I know there are plans to transform each of these cities into something better and bigger and bolder by making them into Smart Cities. Government leaders are working with massive, global tech companies to roll out networks of sensors which will work with artificial intelligence and communications technologies to alleviate traffic congestion, reduce energy consumption, and improve safety and security, among many other benefits. These are all wonderful issues to address, and I do believe technology can absolutely help.

But when we talk about making our cities smart, we’re not talking about a theoretical exercise. It can potentially change the lives of millions of individuals — people who work, live, and play in these cities. Small business owners are especially near and dear to me. I grew up seeing my parents work weekends and holidays, running the family business, a shoe store in a small town in Germany. It has been in the family since 1869. In my last year of high school, I started a software business that helped small retail businesses manage inventory and customers. Later, while at MIT, I co-founded a company called Locu, to help small businesses manage their online presence. Since GoDaddy acquired the company in 2013 I have worked with small business owners around the world, using technology to help them grow their businesses.

There are 35 million small businesses in the U.S. They make up an astonishing 85% of the economy (and there are 210 million more such businesses worldwide). The next time you’re on a street corner, notice how many small businesses populate our cities. It’s astonishing. Any Smart City program needs to take into account its impact on such businesses, most of which don’t have the resources to deploy advanced technology. Small businesses should have a seat at the table when their smart city is being dreamed up.

Through a unique collaboration, GoDaddy teamed up with the Social Computing group at the MIT Media Lab to experiment on how small businesses can use advanced data. Our team developed and installed a series of sensors in Boston’s Downtown Crossing neighborhood to collect data around pedestrian and vehicle movement, air quality and noise. That data is being scrubbed and analyzed and made available to neighborhood businesses and officials.

For example, we worked with the owner of a local Mexican restaurant to create a bridge between the physical and digital worlds that has never been constructed before. We only recently started collecting data, but the project has already sparked ideas that may help owners. A bus stop recently popped up across the street from the restaurant and more people are flowing by in the late afternoon and early evening as they head to the bus for their commute, so he’s considering staying open longer to tap into the dinner crowd. The data should help him make a more informed decision, but imagine if city planners could understand the impact on foot traffic to local businesses before a bus stop is actually moved. They could meet with small business owners in advance and help them to adjust to the change well in advance.

The smarter the owner can be about such data, the better his chances are at competing with bigger, more well-funded chains. Now that is what I call being smart!

The potential is even greater. Pure online businesses log every piece of data and information about who visits the site, where they come from, how long they stay, what they look at, and what they put in and take out of their shopping cart. This is invaluable information.

With the right safeguards, similar information can help owners of physical shops achieve a deeper understanding about their own businesses. And, most tantalizingly, our hope is that eventually data that business owners capture themselves can be combined with civic data from smart city projects to create a holistic picture about what’s happening with a business, both online and off.

Rene Reinsberg is speaking at Techonomy NYC at NYU on May 26. Request an invitation here. He is GoDaddy’s Vice President of Emerging Products, responsible for bringing new products to the company’s portfolio, helping entrepreneurs and small businesses establish and grow their ventures. He co-founded Locu and served as CEO until Locu’s acquisition by GoDaddy in August 2013.

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