A few weeks after moving to New York City, I watched a friend pick up her buzzing cell phone, screen the caller, and put the phone back down. “I’ll just tell him I was on the subway,” she told me.

The moment stuck with me as one of those "New York rules": an idiosyncratic behavior that manifests from the unique, complicated infrastructure New Yorkers navigate every day. I too have used the subway-excuse.

But now, some of those rules are changing. With the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) celebrating the connection of its 100th Wi-Fi enabled station earlier this year, more commuters are enjoying wireless in the New York underground and the subway-excuse is becoming less and less plausible.

There are changes going on above-ground too. Google recently announced a partnership with city-run innovation group LinkNYC that will blanket the streets of New York with free public WiFi. And the trend extends beyond New York. From Tel Aviv to PerthManila to Cape Town, the world’s cities are building out public connectivity programs with help from companies like Motorola and iiNet.

The major opportunity for private/public technology partnerships is to create order from chaos: to accelerate and simplify the day-to-day bustle of navigating a big city.” 

The public/private partnership between for-profit companies and the cities they’re connecting is mutually beneficial. Private companies provide proven technology that accelerates the development of connected cities—without Motorola, for example, Tel Aviv may have taken much longer to roll out a Wi-Fi initiative.

For private companies, partner cities are a new market for lucrative connectivity products that can be used to enhance brand recognition amongst large urban audiences. The cities win as well by being able to offer free public Wi-Fi without bearing the entire cost of infrastructure development, especially considering the installation, maintenance, and elaborate device architecture (including ethernet switches, access points, and wireless controllers) needed to support public connectivity.

Google’s planned partnership with LinkNYC will ultimately increase connectivity for New York residents and tourists, but it will also be an advertising product. The high-speed Wi-Fi pylons that Google and LinkNYC plan to install will feature fibre-optic speed, Google Maps, and charging stations, but will also display targeted digital advertisements on the side of the pylon. Furthermore, Google will be able to serve digital display ads on connected users' devices. As the first major outdoor Wi-Fi partner in New York, Google will be first to claim the valuable physical and digital advertising inventory driven by a high volume audience (if the product is successful).

In London, outdoor advertising company Exterion Media is building an even more direct public advertising experience. The company is working with the London Transit Agency to equip 500 London buses with beacon technology that will allow advertisers to send messages to riders’ smartphones that are tailored to the apps the rider has downloaded to her phone or to the advertisements she sees on the bus around her. Passengers will be able to respond, interact, and redeem special offers, breaking up what may otherwise be a dull commute.

For customers with expensive data plans, increased public connectivity in the world’s cities may be a welcome way to stay online without incurring the costs, but the benefits of these public/private technology partnerships can extend far beyond Wi-Fi and special offers from advertising.

In Tokyo, smartphone users get help navigating the city’s labyrinthine Shibuya Station— visited by 3-million commuters every day—from Bluetooth beacons that provide turn-by-turn directions to the right platform for the user’s trip.

Following a £24 million grant from the UK Technology Strategy BoardGlasgow meticulously mapped the city’s walking tours, cycling paths, and points of interest, and made the data available to residents and visitors on the web and in smartphone apps. The city’s streets are laid with sensors that determine the volume of cars on the road and adjust traffic lights accordingly to reduce congestion for drivers.

New York’s CitiBike bicycle-sharing program, which enables almost 100,000 people a season to navigate the city on two wheels, recently updated its technology so that riders can get real-time updates on bike availability and receive email receipts immediately after completing a ride.  Like the city’s planned partnership with Google, CitiBike provides residents and visitors a valuable service—in this case, the ability to travel by bike without owning one—while Citibank itself gains outdoor advertising space and an expected uptick in brand recognition and affinity. And Citibank is certainly incentivized to keep improving the service; each incremental enhancement to CitiBike’s technology should improve the customer experience and, in doing so, attract more customers and increase the value of the brand footprint.

With great connectivity comes great responsibility, and to ensure success, connected cities should follow the north star of creating value for residents and visitors in the same way their private partners seek to provide value to consumers. The major opportunity for private/public technology partnerships is to create order from chaos: to use connectivity, technology, and data to categorize, accelerate, and simplify the day-to-day bustle of navigating a big city—without losing the quirks and character that attract so many to cities in the first place.

By providing value for residents and visitors, technology partners will ultimately attract the customers to the services that drive impressions for advertising products and resultantly, each company’s bottom line. City-specific services also allow technology partners to sell highly-targeted, valuable ad units based on demographics as granular as specific neighborhoods or intersections.

As public/private technology partnerships mature, appropriate data use will have to be considered closely and restrictions set to respect customer data privacy will likely evolve.”

But in order to reap the benefits of public/private technology partnerships, companies must be vigilant to avoid potential pitfalls.

Programs dependent on advertising revenue must be careful to balance ads with the connected content users have come to enjoy. Advertisements served as users log in to public Wi-Fi should not stall internet access.  When possible, these advertisements should take advantage of customer location data to serve ads that are relevant to where the user is and what she may be doing. For example, an ad served to a rider on Exterion Media’s London buses for a clothing retailer with a location along the bus route is relatively actionable and potentially more valuable for the rider than a an ad for a less immediately available retailer.

Finally, these partnerships need to be cognizant of user sensitivity to data privacy and clearly communicate the terms of service to customers. Public Wi-Fi programs will give both cities and their technology partners access to troves of new customer data, but these programs will need to draw a line on appropriate and inappropriate use of that data.

Leveraging the data for targeted advertising is a concept customers may be more familiar with, but what about some further potential applications of this data analysis? Should public browsing history be searched in a high crime area to identify potential infractions, even if it means the browsing history of non-criminal citizens is combed through as well? As public/private technology partnerships mature, appropriate data use will have to be considered closely and restrictions will likely be set to respect customer data privacy.

Today’s public/private technology partnerships are laying the foundation for a connected future to become reality, and the most effective initiatives will be those that push beyond free public Wi-Fi to build innovative experiences that empower users to interact with their cities like never before.

As long as cities and their private technology partners prioritize the creation of valuable user experiences and respect sensitive issues like data privacy, they'll have the opportunity to fuse our physical and digital worlds to proactively deliver data, history, and recommendations based on hyperlocal context.

“Turn left here and you’ll avoid waiting 2 minutes at the crosswalk … That restaurant you’re walking by? Here are three dishes we know you’ll love.”

(Originally Published on Sparksheet // August 4, 2015)