Month: May 2017

InterviewsUnited States

Citiesense: New York City Neighbourhood Data Platform

The Disrupt Property database features a number of startups using technology to understand neighbourhood data, land parcels and unearth development opportunities. Citiesense is the most recent one we have discovered, currently in beta stage while it fine tunes its New York city focused platform. We got in touch with Co-Founder Starling Childs to understand their approach to unlocking city data.

What is the story behind citiesense?

The neighbourhood is a fundamental unit in the city planning and development process. However, analysing neighbourhoods and understanding the drivers behind economic performance of specific areas in cities remains a big challenge, for which there is no real solution – even in cities with a lot of available data, like New York City. Considering how much of the world’s population is moving to cities, forcing urban areas to change, in some cases, dramatically, neighbourhood communities simply can’t afford not to be more proactive and responsive to opportunities for local development going forward.

Decisions about where, what and when to build new buildings, improve infrastructure, or open new businesses are big decisions that impact cities at the neighbourhood scale. To help with these decisions, Citiesense is establishing a ‘Neighbourhood Knowledge Platform™’,  enabling cities to organise fresh information for the real estate industry, from the neighbourhood up, and drive development toward the best outcomes. The platform is currently being created and tested in partnership with several neighbourhood organisations in New York City that manage Business Improvement Districts (BIDs).

Who is the team behind it?

The team behind Citiesense has backgrounds in city planning, real estate development, and smart cities technology. Before starting Citiesense, I worked as a land use consultant and urban designer, helping neighbourhood communities around the world create plans for development. Carl has a background in real estate development and architecture. Volkan is a full-stack software engineer and was a former Code for America brigade captain. He joined Citiesense after getting to know me through working together at hackathons and early prototypes of their Neighborhood Knowledge Platform.

What is the business model?

Citiesense is a B2B SaaS platform. We have freemium features available to anyone interested in analysing specific areas or neighbourhoods in New York City and tracking the development activity in these areas in real time. We are also currently in the process of private beta testing our Neighbourhood Knowledge Platform™ with a subset of New York City’s local development organisations managing Business Improvement Districts.

What technology is the platform built on?

Our stack is built on Ruby on Rails on the backend and React on the frontend. We use Postgres as our database and the PostGIS extension for geospatial queries.

Who are you clients?

Our clients are neighbourhood organisations that manage Business Improvement Districts in New York City. Citiesense also provides services to municipal clients, including the City of Bridgeport, CT. These early adopters represent some of the most innovative neighbourhoods in the world.

How is this different to something like OppSites or Land Insight?

As a knowledge management platform for neighbourhoods, Citiesense offers services for organising and maintaining local information about cities. Citiesense is not a property search website. While some of the features of the platform can be used to search for specific properties in a city, the service is designed for neighbourhood-scale data analysis and information sharing, and this requires us to do things a differently than sites like Oppsites and in particular. Our customers rely on Citiesense more for data management and analysis than for promoting or searching for specific properties.

What are your plans for expansion?

We’re focused on our private beta testing in New York City for 2017, however, we have early conversations started with several cities and neighbourhoods outside NYC interested in deploying the platform for their local communities. We will begin scaling geographically in 2018 and publicly launch the platform for the rest of country then.

Tell us about the Urban-X process / experience?

URBAN-X is an accelerator program in New York City that focuses on startups solving complex urban challenges and changing people’s lives in cities. We participated in the second cohort for the program. This culminated in a demo day a few weeks ago on May 4th. It was a great experience. It helped us strengthen our existing value proposition and focus on a long-term strategy for our platform’s growth and development. One of the most rewarding aspects of the program was, without a doubt, the people we connected with through it – including the other 7 amazing urban tech companies in our cohort.

The focus is on BIDs – how does this mean the information is different if the focus were on development opportunities?

Focusing on BIDs simply means providing services that serve the needs of these unique groups, specifically the local community organisations that manage BIDs. The information BIDs maintain about their areas in cities is similar to the information that a developer or broker might manage, but it goes deeper. BIDs make it there job to know all there is to know about a neighbourhood, which is something our platform helps them with by connecting their data with data from many fragmented government sources. Connecting BIDs to government data sources with a system that enables them to add their own insight, enables them to curate a higher resolution of local insights. They keep track of things like the status and details of real estate, whether vacant retail spaces or new businesses are opening up in the area, or the performance of streetscapes based on traffic counting sensors and surveying assets like bicycle racks, street lights and tree pits as well as tracking outstanding 311 complaints.

What stage are we at in terms of smart cities (in your opinion) and what are the biggest opportunities?

Smart cities are just beginning to become recognisable. The larger cities around the world have now adopted some degree of IoT infrastructure to track the performance of public services and utilities. These systems are all 1.0 for this, generally replacing legacy technologies that for many US cities are roughly a century old. Opportunities to optimise the delivery of infrastructure and utilities have been a sensible beachhead for smart cities technology. Going forward, we’re going to see a more integrated “user experience” approach to making a city ‘smart’, not only from utility sensors but from the interaction of people living and working in cities with their neighbourhoods. As far as we’re concerned, the real opportunities are going to be realised at the neighborhood-scale, where the impact of urban technology on civic society can be measured and shared more effectively, iterated on and adopted elsewhere.

We co-hosted the first Smart Districts Summit earlier this year to start a discourse about how this trend is emerging in New York City. This was the first of a series of events Citiesense is organizing in partnership with other urban tech companies at the Grand Central Tech Hub and the NYC Small Business Services agency to explore the role technology is having on walkable mixed-use neighborhoods in cities.  Stay tuned for our second event to talk more about Smart Districts later this year.

Blockchain and real estate
InterviewsUnited States

Ubitquity Interview: A 12 month update on blockchain and real estate

In May 2016, we interviewed Ubitquity founder Nathan Wosnack just as he was establishing one of the world’s first platforms for blockchain and real estate. Since then there has been a lot of industry hype on this topic so we sought out a 12 month update to get a sense of exactly how things are progressing in this space.

Tell us about your progress over the last 12 months?

Since we last spoke in May, Ubitquity has made significant progress both in the development of our SaaS (Software-as-a-Service) platform, but also in the business relationships we have formed.

The structural problem of title transfers continues to cause innumerable financial and emotional hardships for citizens, municipalities, and financial institutions. We strongly feel that blockchain technology is not only desirable, but vital for improving economic development as it will significantly reduce costs while creating new technically skilled jobs in the near future. More specifically, we have made progress in the following areas:

Platform development – In September 2016 (one year after registering our LLC) we launched our platform as a private alpha (v1.0). In February of this year we launched v1.1 with a few new features including an improved FAQ/Getting started menu and a public records/tab links so that public records from municipalities entered are automatically available. We also added provider-level DDoS (Distributed Denial of Service) protection. We expect more announcements as we continue with our development with pilot users.

Traction – We have been working with various municipalities (both in the US and worldwide) to meet their ever increasing need for efficient record keeping, while simultaneously yielding significant cost savings and streamlining a costly and burdensome administrative process. This has included both public and stealth pilots. As of a few days ago, we’ve been asked to be part of a case study with Blockchain@UBC (University of British Columbia) using our Brazil pilot. Blockchain@UBC, which Ubitquity is an industry partner, was founded by Dr. Victoria L. Lemieux who was formerly with The World Bank and published a paper  “Trusting records: is Blockchain technology the answer?”.

Conferences – We’ve spoken at D10e in San Francisco, at MIT Center for Real Estate (Christian Saucier and Avi Spielman were on a panel), and our partner Marina Reznik did our first international speech in Abu Dhabi, UAE in December 2016. We were also privileged enough to be chosen as finalists in the 1776 & Smart Dubai Office Blockchain Challenge happening this May 29th-30th.

Overall how much has the blockchain landscape changed in the last 12 months?

We’re seeing technology companies in this space emerging that are not focused on developing around one particular blockchain anymore. Interestingly we’re see organizations looking at the benefits of platforms using interoperable UTXO-based blockchains like Bitcoin, Ethereum, Hyperledger, and MultiChain.

What else? The hype surrounding the ‘blockchain’ buzzword seems to have somewhat waned and companies continue to build both interesting and promising proof of concepts as well as early pilots and are receiving major funding by launching ICOs (Initial Coin Offering) as an alternative to traditional angel/VC equity fund raising for their ideas which has spawned a rush of innovative crowdfunding ideas that I believe may in fact be tenable. At the same time, I’m seeing individuals and companies building questionable so-called blockchain technology ‘solutions’ that may prove that distributed ledgers were not even a necessary component or even technically feasible or were/are simply an ICO scam.

From the real estate tech (‘RETech’) front, I’ve noticed more municipalities and companies in the title insurance and e-recording space being open to meeting blockchain real estate/mortgage companies for panel ‘blockchain 101’ discussions to help educate industry incumbents on the potential benefits of it.

These meetings with industry associations, some of which Ubitquity has participated in, have helped to counter a lot of the media perpetuated FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt) about how blockchain technology will eliminate things like title insurance and many jobs in real estate. We believe that education and the waning hype, along with innovative entrepreneurial creativity will continuously combine to create new capabilities, leading to explosive growth over the long term.

Have any competitors of note emerged recently?

There have which I believe is a good sign we’re on the right track. Some of these competitors have announced pilots with municipalities like we have. Interestingly though, none of them that I’ve observed seem to be building a SaaS platform that focuses on B2B (Business-to-Business) with a focus on e-recording and title companies. Some competitors have focused on local municipalities and announced early-pilots, and interestingly at least two of the organizations have reached out to cooperate with Ubitquity. One of them we recently partnered with is called Bitland.

The other we’re in active talks with is ChromaWay. We are in contact to explore a partnership and other collaboration opportunities in an effort to help grow our organisations along with the blockchain and real estate ecosystem.  Perhaps also to become one of our infrastructure providers. We’re exploring this some more and being that Ubitquity is both blockchain and vendor agnostic, we’ve been happily having these conversations. It’s incredibly early in this niche space and I believe that aligning ourselves with the right partners early is the best way to innovate and gain the most traction. As they say these days: ‘collaboration is the new competition’.

Tell us about the pilot deal you are doing in Brazil?

We’ve partnered with the Cartório de Registro de Imóveis (Real Estate Registry Office) in Brazil to create the first ever pilot programme for the region’s official land records. Our belief is that it will bring greater accuracy and immutability to the data being handled by the land records office. We’re working to bring not just accuracy, and transparency, but also to ensure that we’re compliant and adhering to the best recording keeping practices within this municipality. The first pilot proper registered was a doctor’s home in the southern city of Pelotas (entered onto the Ubitquity Platform on 30 March). We’ve added more addresses since then including the rural municipality of Morro Redondo. In time we’ll have a platform that we hope completely replaces the centralized, siloed legacy systems that exist. Our pilot in Brazil is exciting as it is the first of its kind in the Americas.

How did the deal come about?

A gentleman by the name of Rafael Mezzari at the registry contacted us several months ago. Rafael did much of his own research and saw major potential that blockchain technology had for transparent record keeping and accuracy. Soon after our discussions, Rafael saw how much his bureau needed this, and since then we agreed to create an early pilot with expansion as we continue to develop out our platform to their specifications and needs.

Are there any other such deals globally?

Yes! We’re working on some stealth pilots right now. We’ve been exploring global opportunities in Canada and elsewhere, and I can tell you one of them we’re actively working on is in the United States (and we anticipate having news to share soon).

You said you are working on standardisation – what does that mean?

We’re participating in the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) Technical Committee 307 (ISO/TC307) on Blockchain and Distributed Ledgers in collaboration with the aforementioned Blockchain@UBC. Blockchain@UBC continues to lead the development of a terminology database, which supports international efforts to arrive at a common understanding of blockchain concepts and terms. The database will use the InterPARES Trust Terminology Database as the platform. You can learn more about this on their blog post from 4 May. With that said, ISO standards are just the beginning. We’re in discussions with the Property Records Industry Association (PRIA) among others in an effort to find ways to adhere to and form best practices and standards for blockchain and real estate. Ubitquity, our partners, and the Blockchain Real Estate Alliance that I’ve independently formed are on the forefront of such endeavours.

You are also working on a blockchain alliance – what’s the objective?

With the Blockchain Real Estate Alliance, our motto is “Working together to advance educational quality and enhance best practices within the blockchain and real estate industry.” I founded it and brought two highly capable and brilliant people to realize this vision. Jacob Robinson (a seasoned programmer who I mentioned recently joined Ubitquity) and Adrianna Mendez (B Libre Podcast and Bitcoin Beginner Box). As the months unfold, we plan to bring on industry members, hold events, and build out the alliance.

How is the capital raising going?

Good! We’re in serious talks with angel investors to help with our development and we’re expecting our new clients to help pay for our development. When we initially started, our feedback from VCs was to build out the platform more and get traction. Now that we have done this, we’ve been contacted by several firms and accredited investors who are interested in what we’re doing and are discussing ways to be involved. Once our funding is solidified, Disrupt Property will be the first to know!