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January 17 2013

Yelp partners with NYC and SF on restaurant inspection data

One of the key notions in my “Government as a Platform” advocacy has been that there are other ways to partner with the private sector besides hiring contractors and buying technology. One of the best of these is to provide data that can be used by the private sector to build or enrich their own citizen-facing services. Yes, the government runs a weather website but it’s more important that data from government weather satellites shows up on the Weather Channel, your local TV and radio stations, Google and Bing weather feeds, and so on. They already have more eyeballs and ears combined than the government could or should possibly acquire for its own website.

That’s why I’m so excited to see a joint effort by New York City, San Francisco, and Yelp to incorporate government health inspection data into Yelp reviews. I was involved in some early discussions and made some introductions, and have been delighted to see the project take shape.

My biggest contribution was to point to GTFS as a model. Bibiana McHugh at the city of Portland’s TriMet transit agency reached out to Google, Bing, and others with the question: “If we came up with a standard format for transit schedules, could you use it?” Google Transit was the result — a service that has spread to many other U.S. cities. When you rejoice in the convenience of getting transit timetables on your phone, remember to thank Portland officials as well as Google.

In a similar way, Yelp, New York, and San Francisco came up with a data format for health inspection data. The specification is at http://yelp.com/healthscores. It will reportedly be announced at the US Conference of Mayors with San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee today.

Code for America built a site for other municipalities to pledge support. I’d also love to see support in other local restaurant review services from companies like Foursquare, Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo!  This is, as Chris Anderson of TED likes to say, “an idea worth spreading.”

November 06 2012

A case for voting Republican

I’m writing this from an hour-long polling line on the Upper West Side, where no political races will be remotely competitive this year. The presence of so many people willing to put up with the inconvenience of a long wait to cast a vote that’s unlikely to make a difference is inspiring, but under conditions like this one my mind tends in a cynical direction, and when I go cynical I start to think about voting Republican.

That temptation comes not from the party’s position on FEMA or climate change, its willingness to force legislative cliffhangers rather than compromise, or its alertness on issues as diverse as Barack Obama’s birth certificate and the war on Christmas.

Rather, the temptation arises from this map, which shows the concentration of political influence in just a small handful of “battleground” states. Mitt Romney and Barack Obama have together visited Ohio 75 times. They’ve visited New York 24 times, almost all of which were fundraisers and media appearances. The political cycle, and the issues it chews over, are calculated to excite voters in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida — hence a focus this year on industrial offshoring and retiree health care. Political campaigns use the same big-data approaches that any clever startup or retail chain would use to segment voters and target them directly. Undecided voters in swing states have enormous leverage. The rest of us have been mostly segmented out of the process.

As much as I hope Obama will win today’s election, I’m tempted by the thought that my vote — which is practically certain to have no impact on the outcome of any election today — might be better spent strategically in making New York a slightly more competitive political arena.

You might point out that the candidates’ fundraising hauls come largely from New York and California, and so my fellow urbanites have perhaps a greater say in the formation of the political agenda than a voter in a closely-contested state. But I think it’s safe to say that Donald Trump is not whispering in Mitt Romney’s ear about the need for better rail transportation between New York, Boston and Washington, or the threat to the Northeast of rising sea levels.

If New York were a battleground state, we might enjoy political spoils as lavish as any enjoyed by a subsidized Ohio farmer — and those spoils, in the form of badly-needed improvements to interstate infrastructure, would probably be better for the country than the former, since a modest improvement in the functioning of the New York City area — whose GDP is $1.3 trillion — could have an outsize impact on the national economy. At the very least, presidential candidates would be better attuned to the needs of our big cities, which are the engines of U.S. economic growth but are mostly in electorally uncompetitive states.

Of course, hoping that my vote will make a difference in the competitiveness of this state is probably as far-fetched as thinking my vote will determine the outcome of any election. In the meantime, there are more promising ways to work against the injustice of the Electoral College — like an effort to have states commit to giving their electoral votes to the candidate who wins the popular election.

As it turned out, I took the safer route and voted straightforwardly, for the candidate I’d gone to the polls to support.

September 24 2012

What caused New York’s startup boom?

Google's New York officeGoogle's New York officeSince the crisis of 2008 New York City’s massive financial sector — the city’s richest economic engine, once seen to have unlimited potential for growth — has languished. In the meantime, attention has turned to its nascent startup sector, home to Foursquare, Tumblr, 10gen, Etsy and Gilt, where VC investment has surged even as it’s been flat in other big U.S. tech centers (PDF).

I’ve started to poke around the tech community here with a view toward eventually publishing a paper on the rise of New York’s startup scene. In my initial conversations, I’ve come up with a few broad questions I’ll focus on, and I’d welcome thoughts from this blog’s legion of smart readers on any of these.

  • How many people in New York’s startup community came from finance, and under what conditions did they make the move? In 2003, Google was a five-year-old, privately-held startup and Bear Stearns was an 80-year-old pillar of the financial sector. Five years later, Google was a pillar of the technical economy and among the world’s biggest companies; Bear Stearns had ceased to exist. Bright quantitatively-minded people who might have pursued finance for its stability and lucre now see that sector as unstable and not necessarily lucrative; its advantage over the technology sector in those respects has disappeared. Joining a 10-person startup is very different from taking a job at Google, but the comparative appeal of the two sectors has dramatically shifted.
  • To what degree have anchor institutions played a role in the New York startup scene? The relationship between Stanford University and Silicon Valley is well-documented; I’d like to figure out who’s producing steady streams of bright technologists in New York. Google’s Chelsea office, opened in 2006, now employs close to 3,000 people, and its alumni include Dennis Crowley, founder of Foursquare. That office is now old enough that it can generate a high volume of spin-offs as Googlers look for new challenges. And Columbia and NYU (and soon a Cornell-Technion consortium) have embraced New York’s startup community.
  • Does New York’s urban fabric make its labor market more liquid? Changing jobs in Silicon Valley can mean an extra 40 minutes on your commute if you have to slog up the 101 during rush hour. New York’s main business districts are much more compact; if you change jobs from a bank in Midtown to a startup on 28th Street, your commute won’t change by more than 10 minutes.
  • What are the dominant practice areas in New York’s tech scene, and how do they relate to the human capital available here? Have refugees from the finance, media and advertising industries brought with them distinctive skills from those areas? How much of the startup community here is targeted at acquiring those industries as clients?
  • What’s the city doing in response to the growth of its tech industry, and what can other cities learn from New York’s model? Other old, established cities like Chicago, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Washington claim to have robust startup communities. What do these cities have in common, and how have their governments reacted to the emergence of their tech communities? The emergence of a tech startup scene here could be particularly fortunate for New York in light of its dependence on the finance industry (at the peak of the finance boom, the industry contributed 20% and 13% of New York State’s and City’s income tax revenues, respectively; those figures in 2011 were 14% and 7%). To what degree can a city or state government desperate for diversification bring a startup community into existence?

Send along any ideas in the comments below!

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