Helping Cities Map the Urban Landscape

May 22, 2014
General Foundation

Cities are like a box of chocolates—you never know what you’re going to get. Instead of caramel centers, we’re talking about illegal billboards, poorly maintained infrastructure, and unpermitted construction. City governments and utility companies in particular are faced with monitoring this urban sprawl. Yet scaling up to manage these assets is a costly task. This is why one startup I saw at last week’s 1776 Challenge Cup caught my attention.

CityScan brings together public information with street-mapping to offer the oversight cities so often struggle with. How does the company do it? With LIDAR-equipped cars, of course. LIDAR uses lasers to measure the distance between objects, creating some 1.5 million data points every second that are pieced together into a perfect 3D rendering. The technology isn’t new; CityScan doesn’t even own the cars, but borrows them from Nokia. But using this technology to map the urban landscape is entirely new.

With these interactive renderings, CityScan is able to overlay geographically-based data from a city or company in order to tag what LIDAR sees. Looking for illegal construction activity? CityScan can identify scaffolding and double-check whether the project has the proper permits. The same goes for seeing whether the proper fees have been paid. And it’s this same system that helps utility companies know exactly where their assets are deployed and what’s around them.

Without CityScan’s LIDAR, both public and private sector are faced with hiring an expensive army of inspectors. Not only do they take much longer to do their work, but they’re often less accurate than LIDAR. According to CityScan, one utility company realized a 65% savings and reduced the margin of error in geo-location from yards down to inches.

A few big cities have already used CityScan with impressive results. Now, I’m not necessarily endorsing the regulations that CityScan is sometimes helping governments enforce. For as long as these laws are on the books, the company is at least helping them be more certain and swift.

  • A 1.5-mile drive down Queens Boulevard in New York found that 40% of construction site assets were illegal. That includes everything from scaffolding to fences to signs
  • To inventory every billboard in Chicago would cost the city between $1 million to $2 million. CityScan realized it could do the same task for $25,000 to $50,000. And because the city is reluctant to spend the money to enforce their billboard permits, the city loses out on $10-20 million a year in revenue.
  • Also in Chicago, as Needham Hurst details, ComEd hired CityScan to help it monitor an 11,400-square-mile territory boasting 90,000 miles of power lines serving nearly 4 million customers. This is a less public role for CityScan, but the potential gains in efficiency and service are massive.

Think of CityScan as a great “cityhack”—a way to leapfrog messy city bureaucracies in order to just get stuff done. We need much more of that.