Geodesign Summit Highlight: Collaborative Urban Design

hands raised

With tools increasingly allowing people to share and manipulate content in real time, can we involve more—even all?—stakeholders in urban planning? At the Geodesign Summit hosted by Esri in Redlands, CA last week, we saw how easily municipalities can apply the internet’s agile, collaborative models to something as old school as zoning decisions.

We learned about one city council using Esri Geoplanner live in a town hall meeting. The planners adjusted zoning policies of properties under debate—like floor area ratio and front setback—in front of the crowd, showing the impact of each proposal on housing, jobs, and aesthetics of the area. The audience had wireless buzzers they used to signify “up votes” and “down votes” during the presentation, much like the sentiment trackers displayed live during presidential debates.

This allowed the city council to get real-time feedback on zoning plans from concerned stakeholders. It reminded us of the ancient Athenian model of direct democracy. As connected technology grows more into our urban spaces, look forward to a future where the delay between citizen input and decision-making further collapses. We’ll cast an “up vote” for that.

Data Dominates at the Transportation Research Board’s 94th Annual Meeting


Every year the leading lights of the transportation industry gather in Washington DC for the Transportation Research Board’s Annual Meeting. There, they mingle, debate, and explore the future of how we move about our nation. Placemeter’s core interest is understanding how people move about cities, so we went to TRB with eyes wide open, ready to learn how our nation’s transportation planners and policymakers will shape transportation networks in the next few years.

Here’re three major takeaways we got from the conference:

1. Transportation policymakers are actually excited by self-driving cars and Uber

The story of Uber is often that of a tech startup fighting a city’s regulatory forces. But, aside from the specific regulatory issues surrounding services like Uber, many policymakers are clearly excited by the prospect of distributed on-demand transportation networks.

It’s a common conceit heard in the tech community today: Uber, Lyft, and other services’ popularity gives us a glimpse at a future without personal cars, while the possibility of automated and connected vehicle networks hint at a future without even the need for drivers. It’s one thing to hear notable tech investors say it, and quite another to hear transportation policymakers express a similar sentiment.

“Who knows, one day maybe we won’t even need cars, if you can just step out of your house and use your phone to hail a driverless car that takes you straight to work,” said one CEO of a large DOT at a panel session.

Once Uber and others work out their regulatory problems with local governments, don’t be surprised to see useful collaborations between transportation authorities and on-demand ride apps. Today, we’re seeing the first signs of a collaborative, rather than an adversarial, relationship between transportation startups and cities with initiatives like Bridj’s alternative bus system in Boston, Strava’s partnership with the Oregon DOT, and Uber’s data sharing partnership with the City of Boston.

Look for more, and deeper, collaborations ahead.

2. It’s not just New York that’s worried about pedestrian safety

The United States is experiencing a shift from car-first urban design to one that incorporates multi-modal transportation models. Many policymakers we spoke to and heard from, expressed a real interest in understanding how pedestrians and cyclists move about their streets, and how to design streets better to reduce pedestrian fatalities. Interesting experiments are already underway, from large-scale, well-publicized efforts in New York, to smaller scale changes like modifying the delay between traffic light and walk signal to give pedestrians a better chance of crossing a street safely.

It’s this combination of large systemic change and smaller, inventive design changes that will eventually make our streets safer. Many of these changes begin with gathering and reporting the right data, with non-motorized (read: pedestrian & bike) counts and safety measures now at the forefront of many cities’ minds, which brings us to…

3. People are starved for transportation data (duh), and are using ever more inventive ways to get it

It came as no surprise to us at Placemeter that everyone’s looking for better transportation data than what’s out there today. We’re building a real-time data layer measuring pedestrian and vehicular movement throughout cities, so it was good to hear everyone expressing a desire for better data. What did surprise us was some of the ways that they’d get the data (other than with a solution like ours, of course). We saw many  different excellent talks on modeling pedestrian behavior.

One that caught our eye was a study that tracked how animals, [pdf] from ants to mice, responded to events that induced panic in emergency situations, and how those insights might be used to better design major public spaces and infrastructure for disaster relief and emergency contingency plans.

Virtual reality also provides an interesting way [pdf] to simulate how people respond to catastrophic events or accidents without putting human subjects in harm’s way. In the not too distant future, one can imagine large-scale studies done using something like the Oculus Rift.



We’re living in the golden age of urban data consumption, but TRB taught us that how you generate data can be just as important as how you consume it. The future is bright for those generating movement data now for the transportation networks of tomorrow.


Millions March NYC Dwarfed SantaCon 2014: How Events Impact Foot Traffic Patterns

Love it or hate it, SantaCon is hard to miss each December in New York, as thousands of Santas gallivant throughout the city, accompanied by elves, reindeer, and other wintry companions. The day of this past year’s SantaCon coincided with that of the Millions March in NYC, organized by activists protesting misuse of police force.

Here at Placemeter, we were interested in the impact of these two large-scale events on foot traffic throughout the City. On the afternoon of December 13, 2014, as thousands of Santas and activists convened across NYC, our sensors were at work measuring pedestrian patterns. In terms of absolute numbers, the Millions March dwarfed the impact of SantaCon in foot traffic.

Mashable created an incredible timelapse video of the progression of the March as it moved up 6th Avenue at 29th Street. Using Placemeter’s technology, we put the count at 13,750 people in total in the video.*

Meanwhile, earlier in the day, most venues hosting SantaCon parties were located in Midtown Manhattan (from 29th to 46th Streets at 10 AM-6 PM), while the March began and ended in Lower Manhattan (from Washington Square Park to 34th Street and back south to City Hall at 2-6 PM).

Santas began gathering early in Midtown, with pedestrian activity in the area almost twice as high as a regular Saturday morning from 9 AM to 3 PM, peaking at around 800 people. Foot traffic remained high throughout the afternoon; however, reveling Santas had moved on or tired out by later in the afternoon, with foot traffic actually lower than a regular weekend after 4 PM.


Foot Traffic: Midtown Manhattan During SantaCon

That morning at 11 AM, Union Square saw almost twice as much foot traffic compared to the Saturday before, perhaps due to East Village reveling Santas waking up early, but sleeping in compared to their midtown counterparts.


Foot Traffic: Union Square During Millions March & SantaCon

Throughout the day, Union Square traffic continued to be higher than normal weekends, peaking again at 3 PM and 6 PM, following the path of the March. We saw similar spikes in other locations on the path of the March; at Lafayette St, a block over from the March, foot traffic was almost triple at 5 PM compared to the previous weekend.

Interestingly, in other parts of the city not associated with either SantaCon or the March in SoHo and Williamsburg, many streets actually saw overall decreases in foot traffic that afternoon compared to the previous weekend. This may have been due to dip in temperature that week compared to the previous week.

Foot Traffic: SoHo (Left) and Williamsburg

Foot Traffic: SoHo (Left) and Williamsburg

Knowing this type of data, retailers and civic leaders can gain insight into how large-scale events impact businesses and city organizations alike, and use this knowledge to both react live to changes in plans and plan marketing & logistics for similar events in the future, and add in the effects of weather.

*This is slightly higher than the number put out by the NYPD of 12,000 people, with officials later raising that to 30,000. The discrepancy may be due to this section of the march occurring about a third into the march, moving uptown at 29th Street, with thousands more protesters joining throughout the day as the movement pushed south later in the afternoon.

Rockefeller Tree presents huge opportunity for Midtown retail flagships


© Anthony Quintano

Known around the world as a “symbol of the holidays” in New York City, the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree held its annual lighting ceremony last Wednesday December 3 at Rockefeller Plaza. Though some of the performances received…mixed reviews, the star of the show, the tree itself, lived up to the expectations of tens of thousands of spectators, some of whom showed up hours in advance to snag a viewing spot even amid mass protests staggered around the city.

Placemeter sensors in the area measured close to 10,000 people packed in the stretch of Fifth Avenue between 49th and 50th Streets, the prime viewing section across from the tree. (Because our sensors captured foot traffic in front of the tree, these numbers do not include measurements from the nearby protests.)

During the ceremony itself at 7-9PM on 12/3, the area saw a 160% increase in occupancy compared to the same hours on a regular shopping day. Immediately after the ceremony at 10PM, there was almost a 200% increase compared to a regular day. These numbers are especially impressive considering one side of the street was blocked off, halving the available space.

Capture d’écran 2014-12-10 à 12.35.12

Foot Traffic: Tree Lighting Ceremony vs. Regular Shopping Day

However, since most of the people on Wednesday were there to see the tree lighting event, we were also curious what the lasting impact of the tree would be on foot traffic in the area after the ceremony. The next evening, 12/4, the number of people who passed by the area was greater by 30% at 6-8PM and a whopping 90% at 8-10PM, compared to a regular shopping day.

This meant that while on a regular day, foot traffic peaked around 7PM due to major retailers like Saks closing at 8PM, the day after the tree lighting, traffic remained high at 8-9PM. Nearby stores open in the later hours until 9PM were likely poised to take advantage of increased attention from greater walk-by traffic due to the Christmas tree.

Foot Traffic: Day After Tree Lighting Ceremony vs. Regular Shopping Day

Foot Traffic: Day After Tree Lighting Ceremony vs. Regular Shopping Day

Savvy retailers could use data like this to quantify the impact of major events near their stores
, especially flagship Fifth Avenue shops. Using real-time data about their retail locations and surrounding neighborhoods, they could test displays to attract potential shoppers, adjust hours to coincide with events or the holiday season, and plan future site selection. With holiday shoppers in such a festive mood from their trek to see the tree, it’s likely that they’re also open to do more than just a little window browsing as well.

Many residents of and visitors to New York cherish the Rock Center Tree and its lighting ceremony for marking the start of the holiday season. Perhaps it’s time businesses do the same.

Impact of Rockefeller Tree on Fifth Ave Foot Traffic

Impact of Rockefeller Tree on Fifth Ave Foot Traffic

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Debunking Myths About Computer Vision

By Alex Winter, CEO & Co-Founder

Technology is often over-estimated or under-estimated based on what people see in TV shows and movies. Thanks to Mission Impossible, Jack Bauer, and almost any modern police drama out there computer vision has been recently over-estimated.


As a CV veteran, I always get amused, and sometimes annoyed by the things that happen “on TV.” I also realize that the impression people get from TV and movies can affect how people perceive technologies like Placemeter’s. So in a new series, I’m going to give readers an idea of what current misconceptions of computer visions are.

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5 Ways to Market Privacy When Gathering Data About Consumers

Last week, a Buzzfeed investigation revealed that advertising company Titan had placed roughly 500 Gimbal beacons, which can be used to transmit messages and collect anonymized data via Bluetooth, in phone booths across NYC. Buzzfeed’s article painted a nefarious picture of the beacons’ potential “surveillance” use.

The city ordered their immediate removal, but opinions were split on whether or not this news hailed the coming of Minority Report in real life. Buzzfeed seemed to think so, but CityLab was less sure, noting that Titan’s move was, no more freaky-deaky than the tracking technology we encounter on the web every day.” In addition, the beacons actually required user opt-in via an app for data collection.

If one thing is clear, it’s that how cities and businesses present their data gathering programs to the public is becoming increasingly important, especially as consumers become more aware of the various sensors surrounding them in the physical world.

What’s the best way to present data collection efforts in an open and educational way to the public? Here are five steps you can take to stave off growing concern around tech and privacy:

  1. Be proactive about marketing your data collection efforts - present the facts clearly to the consumer to avoid potential misinterpretation of the facts if others break the news first.
  2. Clearly outline the benefits of your service for consumers - allow your customers to draw their own conclusions. If you message correctly, many might think that sharing their data is worth the enhanced experience.
  3. Consider an opt-in rather than opt-out strategy – building a happy and engaged—albeit smaller—audience may be worth the trade-off. This will become more important as consumer and privacy groups increase their efforts to counter opt-out programs. If you decide on opt out, building consumer awareness around privacy will be even more crucial.
  4. Highlight how your data protects the anonymized information of customers where possible.
  5. Partner with a privacy organization, such as the Future of Privacy Forum, to develop your privacy and marketing policies, and display any privacy certifications prominently in your materials.

As a reminder about Placemeter’s own privacy policy, our goal is to build a data layer about places, not people. At Placemeter, privacy is built-in. Check out our privacy post for more info!