How a data company is changing cities around us for better
It was March 2020, right at the beginning of the pandemic, when New York City officials realised they had a problem. Amid widespread fears about how safe subway trains and buses were, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority needed to pause its 24-hour services for the first time in decades to allow for nightly deep cleans. The system was also seeing a massive decline in users – and revenue – with the city under strict lockdown.
The dilemma was how to carefully reduce services in a way that still allowed essential workers to get to their jobs in hospitals and healthcare facilities. Usually, the public sector uses historical data, but the MTA needed real-time information about how people were moving around the city mid-pandemic and what changes they could make that would have the least impact on frontline workers. The answer? AI-powered data platform company Replica.
‘They came to us and said, “We’re trying to get a feel for what’s happening literally right now,”’ explains Nick Bowden, Replica’s CEO. ‘Our data sat in the middle of all these complex decisions to help them understand the best set of trade-offs to get the desired outcomes.’
That outcome was closing services between 1am and 5am daily, a ‘window of opportunity’ identified through Replica’s software modelling data that aligned with shift patterns at major hospitals for healthcare professionals and cleaning staff. For those who still needed to get public transport during those hours, the MTA used Replica’s data to establish a bespoke partnership with ride hailing companies Uber and Lyft. ‘It was really timely and impactful work and we’re really proud to have been involved with that,’ says Nick. It’s just one example of how ground-breaking and important Replica’s work has turned out to be in the short time since the company was spun off in 2019 as a project in Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs. It all began as a broader research and development project exploring how to harness AI and machine learning to produce better data for urban planning. By incubating for two-and-a-half years before launching, the team was able to enjoy some of the unique advantages of the Alphabet universe, from the resources available to the ambition for what could be achieved. ‘That gave us an early training ground to really push what was possible in this world from a data, technology and go-to-market perspective that otherwise we probably wouldn’t have been afforded,’ Nick explains.
But 2019 was a turning point that saw Replica sharpen its offering into a core set of products for both the public and private sector. Becoming an independent company, says Nick, ‘was a catalyst to just get really focussed on the things that we thought could provide value, the things we could build quickly.’ Their three products cover mobility, people, land use and economic activity and come in three different forms: Trends, which shows broad changes week-by-week; Places, a granular-detail look at the situation in a specific area; and Scenario, which models hypotheticals such as investing more in transit or changing an area’s zoning. ‘They’re consistent with each other from a data perspective,’ says Nick, ‘but they can offer a different value proposition, different parts of workflows.’
The foundation on which all of Replica is built is what Nick describes as ‘data exhaust’ – the bits of information that we constantly emit when we drive a car, use our phone, or go shopping. There is an almost unlimited amount of data out there, but it’s chaotic and has significant privacy implications. The challenge is how to safely and efficiently harness it all to create something usable for everyone from urban planners and transport agencies to utilities companies and real estate agents. ‘Our unique value proposition is that we can take all of that noisy and fractured data and use behaviour models to scale it up and remove all the privacy concerns,’ says Nick. ‘So our end customer gets the insight they need without having to deal with the dark world of data.’
Those end customers have grown significantly since 2019. Thanks to two rounds of funding, Replica has mushroomed from a regional, Kansas City-based operation to a nationwide outfit. ‘Now we work on everything from 10,000-person cities up to the federal government and anything in between,’ says Nick.
In the last six months, the company has also started to work more with the private sector, ranging from infrastructure businesses to restaurant franchises. It’s a new form of partnership for Replica, but so far, it fits: ‘That’s probably one of our fastest growing units, even though it still only represents 20 or 30 per cent of the total revenue of the company.’
For now, however, Nick is happy with the company focusing on collaborating with the public sector. The combination of the pandemic – ‘Covid was really a catalyst for people to understand we can’t use old data anymore’ – and the Biden administration’s recent USD1.2trn infrastructure bill means there are a wealth of opportunities. It’s also where Nick began his career, as an urban planner in Phoenix, Arizona. ‘Our company brings over 75 years’ experience working with the public sector on multivariate, complex problems. There is no single answer facing our customers, so our job is to help them unearth timely information to make the most informed decision they can while serving their community’s best interests.’
His ambition is for Replica to eventually become his industry’s equivalent of the Bloomberg Terminal, a standard, must-have platform. ‘Our hypothesis from the beginning has been that if we can become the single source of truth or the interface of record for the public sector, that gives us a unique differentiating opportunity. We’re in the early stages of trying to fulfil that vision.’