About Bennat Berger

Bennat Berger is an entrepreneur, investor, and tech writer based in New York City. He is a co-founder and Principal at Novel Property Ventures, a real estate firm that specializes in amassing and managing multifamily residential units in New York City. He is also a founding partner at the investment firm Novel Private Equity, where he oversees investments across a diverse range of interests, from experiential retail to entertainment to supermarket technologies.

How AR and VR Could Change Tourism in New York

Tourist itineraries in New York City are predictable enough to be b-roll cliche. Tourists are easy enough to spot: they move in flocks through Central Park, take selfies at the Statue of Liberty, stare in awe from their slow-moving tour buses at the Empire State Building, and — of course — purchase “I Heart NYC” t-shirts from overpriced carts. The New York that visitors enjoy is predictable, yes, but also vivid, exciting, and well-packed with familiar landmarks; each new day offers wide-eyed tourists the chance to experience famous sights firsthand.

But what if the tourism experience could span more than a well-walked map of landmarks? What if visitors could peel back the cliches of New York’s touristy exterior and delve into its rich history? Augmented and virtual reality technologies may provide a means to do just that, revolutionizing the way visitors experience both the city and its history.

VR and AR’s entry into the tourism sector isn’t all that surprising, given its growing popularity. Analysts for Goldman Sachs estimate that the market for both will overtake $1.6 billion by 2025. Figures from Statista further indicate that as of 2018, 117 million people worldwide were active VR users — a notable leap from four years before, when only 200,000 actively used the technology. Both AR and VR are well-known for their ability to create immersive digital experiences; they empower consumers to delve into their favorite fantasy gaming worlds, experience movies in near-overwhelming sensory experiences, and even virtually “trial” products before buying them in a brick-and-mortar store. With tourism, virtual- and augmented reality technologies promise to add another layer of immersion to an industry that already centers on creating memorable experiences.

VR Expands Tourism Possibilities

Every pre-planned walk or guided bus tour has its limits. Tourists can’t duck under the metaphorical velvet rope to explore their favorite attractions; they have to stay within set, guide-approved bounds. With VR, those limitations are less constricting, offering virtual access to the tourist without compromising the security of the site itself.

As Dr. Nigel Jones, a senior lecturer in information systems at Cardiff Metropolitan University noted for a recent article for the BBC, VR provides “something that’s more tangible to the [tourist]. They can see where they’re going to go, see what’s happening in that location […] The other advantage is to give people an experience that they can’t do. You could take them to a place that’s off limits — like a dungeon in a castle.”

New York City might be running low on castles, but it certainly has no shortage of historic attractions and digitally-explorable landscapes. Consider Governor’s Island, a popular tourist hotspot that sits just East of the Statue of Liberty. Today, the island encompasses several historical sites and a national park — but centuries ago, it was a seasonal fishing spot for Native Americans and an outpost for English and Dutch settlers. The island’s history is rich — and relatively inaccessible for most tourists. However, recent AR innovations have begun to allow tourists to walk through history as they traverse the island.

Inventing America is one such tourist-centered tool. Made publicly available in 2018, Inventing America uses an AR-powered app to transport visitors into a 17th-century, post-colonial version of Governor’s Island. The app provides users with the opportunity to delve into storylines, characters, and history even as they explore the real-life Governor’s Island on foot. Experiences in the app are inextricably tied to physical exploration, ensuring that the AR game complements and supports, rather than replaces, a tourist’s real-world experience on the island.

Of course, not all VR- and AR innovations are quite so based in game and narrative. Others, like the New York City-based tour provider The RIDE, use VR and AR experiences to provide tourists with more information as they drive past popular city hotspots. The RIDE melds traditional tour bus routes with augmented reality technology; each of its buses sport 40 LCD TVs, surround sound, and LED lights. This structure, the company notes, allows facilitators to provide “deeply researched audio/visual support conveying the history and growth of Manhattan” during their tours, thereby superimposing a tech-powered view of a past New York onto the view tourists see beyond the bus’s windows.

Emerging virtual tools promise to add all-new layers to New York’s tourism experience, sweeping away the tired tropes of tourist cliches — and we will be all the better for it.

By |2019-07-15T20:51:17+00:00May 30th, 2019|Culture, Technology|

The Rise of “Apartment” Stores: How Retailers are Downsizing to Survive

The Rise of “Apartment” Stores: How Retailers are Downsizing to Survive

Confronted with the rise of online shopping, experiential retail has gone in multiple directions, each one suited to their product. Think of the Apple store, which performs the dual task of selling the company’s products and constructing a brand around them through conscious design choices. For sellers whose wares aren’t so high-tech, there’s been a conspicuous rise in what are called “apartment stores,” the term a play on the department stores they’ve largely replaced in urban centers and upscale retail zones.

What Is an Apartment Store?

An apartment store is generally much smaller than their department store forebears: set up as a warm, inviting space not unlike a well-designed living room. Their simple design belies a sophistication perfectly and unobtrusively designed for displaying high-end clothing and housewares, minus the fluorescent lighting and cold tile floors. Patrons can come in, sit down, even have an espresso or other gourmet treats while they peruse the wares on hand.

The result is an intimacy that has the potential to generate real, loyalty-based consumer relationships. A store that feels like home has long been a goal for many retailers, so it’s almost a surprise that it’s taken so long for this concept to catch on. Some sources place the origin of the trend at around 2015, and it’s since taken root in major cities like New York and Berlin.

Retailers who can take the time and effort to construct such a space aim to achieve the ultimate goal in the age of Amazon: provide a great reason for shoppers to get off the couch and into their doors. It’s no secret that offering something more than a simple transaction is one of the most reliable weapons in the modern retail arsenal, and apartment stores have become one of NYC’s most popular experiential spaces.

Why New York City is Embracing Apartment Stores?

A city such as New York is home to millions and millions of potential buyers, so standing out from the fray is paramount. This rule is especially reliable for high-end customers: they can afford the best, and will expect it when they’re spending their retail dollar. For luxury retailers, this has traditionally meant providing personal consulting, private shopping sessions, and early access to exclusive wares. As luxury has gone mainstream, apartment stores give that personal touch in a place whose doors are open to all (even if the most expensive products on the shelf are still out of reach).

At the same time, the skyrocketing price of real estate means that even established retailers have needed to downsize. An apartment store makes the most of limited space, giving luxury without extravagance. By bringing the high-end shopping experience into a place that feels more like home, buyers have a whole new reason to make their way to the store.

Everything Old is New Again

While a mostly recent trend, apartment stores are in a way a bit of a throwback. Before department stores took off in the early-mid 20th century, most storefronts were small and intimate spaces where sellers knew their customers by name. Shopping was mainly confined to the neighborhood, and destination-style megastores had not yet come into existence. When bigger retailers came along, offering selection and prices that could rarely be beat by mom and pop shops, something reassuring and familiar was lost in the process. Apartment stores bring a bit of that familiarity back to shopping, while still maintaining the high standards today’s customer expects.

In a retail environment where size is not always an asset, apartment stores offer luxury brands and middle-market ones alike space for their customers to call home. Thanks to a market where customer loyalty is as valuable as ever and the cost of entry is often forbiddingly high, expect more of these stores to take up (limited) space at a shopping district near you.

 

By |2020-05-07T19:52:05+00:00March 25th, 2019|Culture|

How Cities Can Lead the Charge Against Climate Change

The encroaching issue of climate change is one that’s far too massive for one group to handle alone. It’s up to multiple corridors of power to enact the changes that will ensure a safe future for our planet–which is precisely why it’s become such a complicated state of affairs. With two-thirds of Earth’s population expected to be clustered into cities by 2050, it looks to be urban planners who hold the keys to our survival. It’s also a matter of accounting for the damage cities have done on their own: as it stands now, urban centers are responsible for two-thirds of greenhouse emissions.

As a citizen of New York City, I was proud when our mayor announced the city would divest money from fossil fuels. This move was part of a larger movement aimed at hitting the largest producers of greenhouse gases where it hurts and is certainly an important part of the prevention process. But failing to design sustainable lifestyles for all city-dwellers will result in certain ecological disaster, a situation which no amount of money can correct. Creating these lifestyles starts with tackling the two most ripe areas for change: our construction and transportation practices. With the right plans and initiatives, these will be the conduits through which our cities lead the country into a cleaner and more assured future.

Construction

The largest visible representation of urban life, our tall buildings must use energy sustainably and responsibly if we’re to address the climate crisis adequately. This can take several forms, including efficient design that maximizes sunlight, green roofs and outdoor spaces which support the oxygen cycle, reusing water and recycled construction materials. So-called “green buildings” are more than a trendy movement: they’re the frontlines of the fight against rising temperatures.

Efficiency can even work in supertall buildings: Taipei 101 in Taiwan, built in 2011, boasts LEED Platinum certification, the tallest structure in the world to be given this stamp of sustainability. In the midst of a skyscraper boom, cities like New York must take a leadership position in ensuring that while we build to the upper reaches of the atmosphere, we don’t forget about the ground we’re situated on. Earth-friendly building materials like recycled steel and precast concrete can eliminate much of the energy usage that goes into creating these massive structures in the first place, starting their lives off on a sustainable footing.

Transportation

While environmentally conscious building practices are pivotal, an even bigger aspect of taking on climate change is the necessary paradigm shift in the way we get around our cities. Even with a majority of us living in these population clusters, our dependence on pollution-causing automobiles has played a major part in bringing this climate crisis into being. Even electric cars won’t completely save us, as CO2 emissions will stay high regardless thanks to large-scale shipping and aviation transport that can’t run on electricity for the foreseeable future.

For maximum efficiency in sustainable travel, robust public transportation is an absolute necessity. Even zero-emissions cars only carry fewer than a half-dozen people at once, requiring more energy to be expended on transporting fewer people on a daily basis. By designing cities where public transport is a more attractive option, we create communities that aren’t only cleaner, but happier places to live.

It’s an unfortunate reality that many forward-thinking projects will require state and federal approval before cities can get them to the implementation stage. In these and many other areas, it’s our nation’s metropolitan centers where the front lines of the battle against climate change will be staged, but by taking control of the narrative, city planners, local leaders and advocates can spearhead the changes that need to happen. Yes, they’ll need political support in due time, but building and transportation plans in the works are the roadmap for a safe, continued existence.

By |2019-05-30T19:11:47+00:00February 15th, 2019|Technology, Urban Planning|

Getting Real About HQ2

The much-hyped HQ2 sweepstakes has finally come to a close, but many in the winning cities aren’t feeling so triumphant. Two major metros, New York and DC, will play host to the currently-Seattle-based tech behemoth’s newest nerve centers. Here at the upper end of the Northeast Corridor, Amazon’s announced Queens-based plans have come with a great deal of controversy, with local politicos and opinion makers alike voicing real concerns about effects-economic, social, and more-of this new development.  

As a New Yorker who follows the tech scene closely, I’ve heard a lot about HQ2 that doesn’t quite sit right with me. In the interest of lending a street-level perspective to the proceedings, here are 3 facts about the deal that are getting lost in the clamor.

 

Over 12,000 non-tech jobs will be created

Fears of a new Amazon-bolstered NYC tech elite were fed by the reported 25,000 new jobs that the company expects to create with HQ2. In truth, only half of those jobs (still an admittedly large number) will be in tech-influenced positions where salaries can hit the higher six figures. The other half will be in the same support positions you’d find at any large organization: administrative, custodial, and other jobs that can better draw on the diverse talent pool of Queens and the rest of the city. Don’t forget, too, that the city’s minimum wage will be hitting $15/hour by the end of 2018. It seems likely that working New Yorkers of all ages and levels of experience will have a chance to find new professional fulfillment in HQ2.

 

In a city of 8 million, 25,000 is a drop in the bucket

25,000 open jobs is a big number to see on paper, but in a city as big as New York, 25,000 is a pittance. It’s likely that the vast majority of us who don’t normally pass through LIC will see no changes whatsoever. Even if every single job is taken by someone who currently doesn’t live here, that’s hardly an invasion. The announced number is about the equivalent of the enrollment of the city’s six biggest high schools (there are over 120 in Queens alone). Do we stress every year about new graduates flooding the city? This is New York, not Cedar Rapids. We’ve benefitted from a constant influx of talented and smart people since the 1600s, and HQ2’s changes will amount to just one more round of newcomers.

 

Long Island City will change, but that’s nothing new

Make no mistake, if the majority of Amazon-inspired arrivals choose to take up residence close to their new place of employment, Long Island City will see the brunt of the cultural changes. But for a neighborhood that was little more than a courthouse and a few commercial strips (and one lonely skyscraper) only a couple decades ago, Amazon’s move is the cherry on top of a long process of evolution. Few neighborhoods have exploded in popularity like LIC in the past decade-plus, and this was underway well before Bezos and company set their sights on the locale. A tech campus is perhaps befitting the scores of new bars, restaurants and other hotspots in this part of town.

Any worries about Amazon affecting culture ought to be assuaged by the fact that this city always has and always will be changing, tech companies or no tech companies. It’s the people, not the corporations, that make New York City what it is, and I know I’m not alone in saying that no company is big enough to change the Big Apple itself.

By |2019-05-30T19:12:15+00:00December 12th, 2018|Current Events, Technology|

The Tech That Predicted Hurricane Florence

This past September, as Hurricane Florence bore down on the Atlantic coastline, researchers and forecasters were more prepared than ever before to deal with the daunting effects of the upcoming storm. While these destructive forces of nature will never be truly neutralized, cutting-edge observation systems have made predicting their effects, and making people safer, easier than ever. That’s not to say it’s a simple task.

While today’s satellites can predict typical weather conditions fairly accurately, patterns of hurricanes making their way over the ocean are a bit more complicated. Predicting a hurricane’s path is tricky, which is why scientists work hard to gather as much data as possible from each major storm to better predict the next one.

Over the past few decades, however, weather forecasters have been able to rely on the combination of satellite technology, advanced radar systems, and well-designed hurricane aircraft to bring about a clearer picture of hurricane and tropical storm behavior than ever thought possible. Today’s technologies allow researchers and forecasters to track a hurricane’s path and predict its size and force with a remarkably high degree of accuracy.

Up Close and Personal Data Collection

Accurately predicting the path and potential damage of a storm requires some truly up close and personal data collection that’d be far too dangerous for a human to conduct in person. To get the most valuable information available, researchers have a secret weapon about the size of a paper towel roll: the dropsonde. Dropsondes are designed by Vaisala, a company based out of Louisville, Colorado. These appropriately named devices are dropped out of high-altitude planes, directly into the hurricane to gather and send data about the storm to pilots and research labs.

Originally developed by the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, these tools, formally the Airborne Vertical Atmospheric Profiling System (AVAPS™) debuted in 1997 for operational weather forecasting and atmospheric research efforts.

Dubbed by the National Science Foundation ‘workhorses in hurricane forecasting’ dropsondes can withstand extreme hurricane conditions to provide accurate, useful data. Each dropsonde is relatively lightweight and loaded with sensors. They’re small and efficiently designed, capable of capturing data twice per second in the harshest conditions imaginable.

Released from airplanes straight into the storm, dropsondes fall to the ground quickly, making every second of data collection extremely precious. Developers attach a small parachute to each unit — slowing down the drop rate so the devices can accurately measure temperature, humidity, wind speeds, and other important data points. Back at the research center, scientists can extrapolate all the data to formulate detailed projections, adding to a body of knowledge that will one day predict hurricanes the way we can today forecast a sunny afternoon.

Tracking the Hurricane in real time

During Hurricane Florence, research scientists at NOAA’s National Severe Storms Laboratory were even able to launch high-tech weather balloons into the middle of the hurricane to capture data. Sensors inside the balloon helped scientists monitor Hurricane Florence as it made its way to the shore and transitioned from a hurricane to a tropical depression. This type of technology helps data scientists analyze various conditions before, during, and after the hurricane, track the hurricane’s path, and make accurate estimates and assumptions when building models.

The National Hurricane Center has a formal process in place for forecasting all types of tropical cyclone activity in the Atlantic and Pacific around North America and are responsible for communicating their forecasts every six hours. They use everything from satellites, aircraft, ships, buoys, radar devices, and land-based tools to track hurricanes and predict their paths as accurately as possible. Once a hurricane looks like it will make landfall and is identified as a real threat, it’s closely monitored by the U.S. Air Force and NOAA hurricane craft.

While the storms themselves can’t be stopped, high-tech data collection and analysis can greatly reduce the risk presented by each new storm, and influence building and city planning practices to further protect residents from these incredibly powerful weather systems. This high-tech development, perfected over time, will one day make hurricanes like Florence a much less daunting event. That’s an evolution worth applauding.

By |2019-05-30T19:13:00+00:00October 4th, 2018|Technology|

How Do New York City’s Bookstores Stay in Business in the 21st Century?

With Amazon eating up a growing share of book sales, and the worlds of music and movies going digital, it seemed like it was only a matter of time until local booksellers went the way of the Automat. The convenience and unmatchable selection of online shopping, at Bezos’ store, in particular, was thought to be a death knell for the traditional bookselling model. While it’s true that many bookstores, both corporate chains, and local favorites, have fallen by the wayside, the independent bookseller is far from disappeared.

For devotees of brick-and-mortar bookshops, the current scene is highly encouraging. There’s reason to be optimistic for the next generation of readers in the five boroughs. For a variety of reasons, new and old independent bookstores have been surviving and thriving in this new economy. These are three of them, each with their own qualities to stand out in a crowded marketplace.

 

Know Your Audience – Printed Matter

Funded by a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting contemporary art, Printed Matter has existed in New York since 1977, moving from TriBeCa to SoHo to their current home on 11th Avenue in Chelsea. Managed by an artist’s foundation, Printed Matter is credited with popularizing art books as a whole, making the printed page a viable medium for unique artistic expression and not just pictures of paintings.

A new planned location in the East Village is just one of several art bookstores planned for the neighborhood, proof that this niche is one that inspires visits from devotees in enough numbers to support multiple locations. A retail outlet that knows its audience and even shapes it through thoughtful curation of their offerings can see long life, no matter how much the market churns. Printed Matter proves that customer identity matters.

 

Community Roots – Lit Bar

While this one has yet to open, the story of its origin is emblematic of the new bookstore trend. Barnes and Noble, the nation’s sole remaining major bookstore chain, announced in 2014 that their final Bronx outpost would be closing, leaving the borough of 1.4 million people without one solitary bookstore. Petitions were filed, protests held, but by the end of 2016, the Bronx was bookless.

Enter Noelle Santos. One of the passionate protesters went entrepreneurial to fight the tides, and her store, Lit Bar, a combination wine bar and family-friendly bookstore is slated to open this fall. Modeled on Denver, Colorado’s BookBar with a uniquely NYC twist, Santos’ bookstore will hopefully serve as proof that the Bronx is ready for a new resurgence of bookshops in this century.

 

More than material – Books Are Magic

Author Emma Straub’s Cobble Hill, Brooklyn store has been the toast of the area in the year since it’s opened, serving as the spiritual replacement for long-beloved neighborhood institution Book Court, which closed in 2016 when its owners decided to call it a career.

Straub’s new store wasted no time in making their name known, thanks in large part to a robust social media presence featuring the store’s highly Instagrammable outer mural and a pristinely manicured interior. But it’s not all style and no substance: frequent in-store author appearances and signings as well as sponsorship of larger events (a recent reading featuring Stephen King at St. Ann’s Church downtown drew a capacity crowd) combine with an ever-updated selection allowing Books are Magic to comprehensively serve “New York’s book borough” thoughtfully, pleasing both eyes and minds.

 

These stories may not necessarily be a detailed blueprint for booksellers to navigate today’s market, but they illustrate the fact that unique, independent retailers still have a place in New York City. For any retail outlet, offering the same experience as the place next door isn’t going to cut it in a world where nearly anything can be bought from the comforts of home, and the bookstore scene has adjusted accordingly.

Interestingly, even Amazon runs two brick-and-mortar bookstores in the city, proof that the physical space still has viability for corporate retailers, even if they exist partially to promote online offerings. It seems now that the death of the bookstore was greatly exaggerated. For book lovers of the five boroughs, these and other locations are providing a good reason to get off the couch and head out to get their fix.

By |2020-05-07T19:50:42+00:00September 17th, 2018|Culture|

Taking a Byte Out of Real Estate with Cryptocurrency

Whether it’s a bubble or bona fide, anyone who pays even cursory attention to the financial world can’t deny that bitcoin is a force to be reckoned with. The decentralized digital cryptocurrency, a form of payment comprised of lines of code, entered the mainstream consciousness late in 2017 and has remained a controversial topic.

The currency that’s purely digital whose value rises and falls quite unpredictably has understandably earned many antagonists. But for true believers, bitcoin represents a revolution in money, where power has been wrested from big bankers and into the hands of the people who use it. So what does that mean for real estate, where major, life-changing transactions happen every day?

There’s been a number of quick adapters all over the industry. From the East coast to the west and even across the globe, Bitcoin has come into enthusiastic use for purchasing real estate. To say that these sellers are simply hopping on the newest craze sells a bit short the advantages that bitcoin carries for the property business.

Average people joining the bitcoin revolution enjoy the freedom from financial institutions that cryptocurrency offers. Rather than a credit card where you’re entrusting your money to a network of institutions, crypto is a one-stop shop without third party interests or issuers taking their cut.

This simplicity in moving funds around is a special advantage when purchasing real estate. The ease of movement eliminates the long waiting periods necessary for looping in the banks, lenders, and fee payments that have been part and parcel of real estate transactions for generations. Today’s cutting-edge homebuyer, armed with bitcoin, can close as soon as they find a property they like, as long as they have a seller willing to play ball. Such expediency is an undeniable advantage.

Buyers hoping for privacy will find exactly what they’re looking for with bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies as well. In an industry where secrecy is often a must for major private transactions, the untraceable, encrypted payment enabled by blockchain technology can give anonymous buyers the complete discretion they desire. Blockchain can also cut down on fraud, so even faceless buyers can be held to the same standard of financial transparency as the rest of us when it comes to spending funds.

Some influential names in real estate proclaim to be intrigued by the Bitcoin craze, but when pressed admit they don’t want to tie their own money into crypto. The risk factor in using a currency that’s more like a commodity is simply too volatile for many, and the potential that bitcoin amounts to another risky bubble has left major financial giants steering clear. So where does that leave the average homebuyer?

For many everyday people, buying a home is enough of a major undertaking without adding in the risk of dealing with such a volatile payment method. In a real estate world prone to bubbles in its own right, mixing bitcoin into the equation may well pile on risk to a situation where buyers and sellers would rather minimize, not multiply, potential hazards.

But for those untimid about riding the ups and downs of this craze wherever it may end up, there are worse things you can do with your money than acquire some valuable real estate. With a growing number of agents and sellers using bitcoin to gain an edge on the competition, you may well end up financing the house of your dreams with money that exists only in computer servers. If the unpredictability of cryptocurrency can be held in check in the future, expect this to truly be the beginning of a transformation in real estate.

By |2020-02-11T16:33:35+00:00September 5th, 2018|Technology|

The Major Problem with New York’s Cyberbullying Bill

The Major Problem With New York’s Cyberbullying Bill

What would you do if you found out your child might face time in juvenile detention for a few mean comments posted online? The question itself seems shocking; parents and non-parents alike would agree that the punishment seems a little extreme. And yet, in early June, the New York State Senate officially put just that into law. Here excerpted, it reads:

“Any person who knowingly engages in a repeated course of cyberbullying of a minor shall be guilty of an unclassified misdemeanor punishable by a fine of not more than one thousand dollars, or by a period of imprisonment not to exceed one year, or by both such fine and imprisonment.”

Despite outlining startling consequences for cyberbullies, the legislation doesn’t specify what offenders would need to do to become criminally liable. Most people get the gist: cyberbullying occurs when one or more people harass or abuse another person using electronic means. But what does that mean from a prosecutor’s standpoint? Is a “repeated course of cyberbullying” two mean texts, four malicious Facebook posts, or an all-out campaign across multiple social platforms? Where do we draw the line — and how do we determine when someone crosses it?

Moreover, the sole point the legislation makes clear — the protection of minors — only raises more questions. It’s simple enough to make a swift and severe judgment call when an adult bullies a minor online, but the situation is less cut-and-dried when both parties are young. Does an accused minor’s age make a difference? Would we prosecute a twelve-year-old with the same severity we would a seventeen-year-old? The answers to these questions remain unanswered.

My aim here isn’t to undermine the legislature’s noble intentions, but simply to point out that this bill’s pervasive vagueness renders it ineffective as a legal deterrent.

In 2014, a similarly unclear anti-cyberbullying law in Albany County fell under scrutiny from the New York State Supreme Court. The published rationale behind limiting the 2014 language argued that the wording was undefined to the point of making it difficult to enforce; a child’s prank call to an adult could constitute — and legally face severe punishment for — cyberbullying. As a result of this case, the current definition for the term includes “only three types of electronic communications sent with the intent to inflict emotional harm on a child: (1) sexually explicit photographs; (2) private or personal sexual information; and (3) false sexual information with no legitimate public, personal or private purpose.” Given that the 2018 bill does not define cyberbullying beyond the referenced text here, it’s unlikely to hold up any more sustainably or effectively than its predecessor.

Now, this definition works well enough in cases where sexually explicit content is a factor — but what if it isn’t? How do we protect the children who have to handle endless texted cruelty, social media hate, and online harassment?

These questions are what make the vagueness of Senate Bill S2318A so frustrating. Bullying, both online and in-person, is an epidemic in our schools. A 2016 study conducted by the Cyberbullying Research Center found that a full 34% of students in a nationally-representative sample reported experiencing repeated and intentional harassment and mistreatment via cell phones or other electronic devices. That’s a horrifying number, especially once you consider that kids who experience cyberbullying often struggle with depression, anxiety, and loneliness as a result — typically for long after they leave school. Kids who bully don’t get away scot-free either; many carry the abusive behaviors they develop during school into their adult relationships and fall into substance abuse patterns.

Cyberbullying is a destructive force in today’s schools, and our kids deserve more than a vague half-measure that, despite providing severe consequences, falls short of defining what “cyberbullying” is in the eyes of the law. The intention behind this recent legislation was good-hearted and well-meant, but we can do better.

By |2019-05-30T19:14:38+00:00July 9th, 2018|Current Events|

The Big App Pull: NYC Finally Awash in Free Wireless Internet

New York City’s history may be as deep and as complex as its subway system–but that doesn’t mean we should keep our eyes on the past. Of a stunning 8 million residents, too many New Yorkers have been left behind without reliable internet access. Now, both in the subway tunnels and on the streets, spaces shared in NYC have been linked to the rest of the web-bound world.

After enlisting a private company to install and maintain service last year, the MTA finally delivered on a long-held promise: wiring the entire tunnel-bound section of New York’s subway system with 4G connectivity. As a result, all 279 underground subway stations are equipped to fulfill New Yorkers’ web browsing, apps, calls, and texting needs while they ride the rails.

The same private contractor, Transit Wireless, installed free WiFi, giving straphangers multiple options to stay online during their commute. This move was long overdue, and a welcome change for a mass transit system with a variety of issues that have no quick fix in sight. While trains may not be moving at their highest efficiency, riders will at least have a wealth of activities at hand to get through delays. Both this cell hookup and subway WiFi came online well ahead of schedule, a rare but welcome change of pace from the usual transit timeline.

New Yorkers have their well-earned grievances with the subway system as it stands–but there’s no denying that this new internet-friendliness represents a major upgrade. And it’s not the only way the city has allowed for better internet access, as public high-tech connectivity has expanded above ground. Thanks to the new LinkNYC kiosks around the five boroughs, public WiFi covers an increasing number of our city sidewalks as well.

A 21st century take on the payphone, these kiosks offer free “super fast” WiFi, two USB connections for charging on the go, and a built-in phone to make free calls nationwide. 55-inch HD screens on the sides of these kiosks display NYC fun facts, bus arrival times, subway line updates, and advertisements, the last of which provides funding for the project.

A consortium of contractors referred to as CityBridge are responsible for installing and maintaining the units, with the city receiving 50% of gross revenues in return for the street space. While it’s important to always use caution when connecting to public WiFi, the encrypted connection offered by LinkNYC allows users to browse the web with confidence. With over 7,000 of these kiosks projected citywide by 2024, we can expect a city nearly blanketed by high-speed WiFi. This is no small task when covering over 8 million citizens.

Since the payphone system was installed in the early 1900s, New Yorkers have become accustomed to convenient communication no matter where they turn. Now, with most phone calls perpetually within arms’ reach, these new WiFi deployments offer an appropriately modern convenience with no quarters necessary.

Following this disruptive implementation, New Yorkers are already looking to what’s next. With our streets and subways now awash with WiFi, might public EV charging stations be far behind? Perhaps an AI-inflected solution to the delays plaguing underground transit?

In a city that’s always looking for the next big thing, public WiFi has been well overdue and is thankfully now here. For the next big leap forward, whether above ground or below, there ought to be no limit to our thinking.

By |2019-05-30T19:15:39+00:00June 11th, 2018|Technology|

How AI Will Help Build Better Cities

A “smart city,” as we think of it now, is not a singular, centrally controlled entity but a whole collection of intelligently designed machines and functions. Essential aspects of city life like traffic flow, energy distribution, and pedestrian behavior will one day be monitored, understood, and acted upon by smart machines with the goal of improving the way we live. AI has already transformed so many aspects of city life, and one day it may guide an even greater proportion of municipal functions. Here’s a look at just a few of the ways this will happen.

Traffic

Even in a public transportation haven like New York or Chicago, traffic congestion is a major issue. AI can provide a major boost to the work of city engineers, making a drive through the city less of a hassle and reducing the overall time spent on the road. AI can collect and analyze traffic data as it’s happening, and eventually even provide routing solutions for autonomous vehicles.

Not only that, this info can give drivers real-time information on open parking, making the desperate search for a spot downtown a thing of the past. Smart traffic signals that observe and analyze vehicle flow data can keep drivers moving without wasting time at automated red lights. With full integration with self-driving cars, it’s not a stretch to imagine a daily commute happening with little to no input from drivers.

Power

As cities grow, the need for power increases exponentially. One of the most consistent challenges of city management is ensuring that every citizen has their energy needs met, and while green solutions have already made an impact in reducing waste, AI can take the next step in bringing our cities closer to fully self-sufficient energy.

Our power grid is aching for a modern overhaul, and one may just be in store, thanks to smart grid initiatives to bring AI to the application and distribution of energy. The efficiency of a smart machine means that the power of the future will be delivered with less of the waste and redundancy that marks our present grid. The U.S. Department of Energy agrees with the potential of such technology, having made the development of a smart grid an official directive in 2010.

Safety

Artificial intelligence can not only make driving safer, but also improve conditions on the sidewalks and alleyways as well. The city of the future looks to be not only more efficient, but safer as well.

In its best form, AI will allow city officials to better monitor neighborhoods and districts whose problems have historically flown under the radar. Police departments nationwide have already adapted ShotSpotter technology to better crack down on gun crime, with promising results for holistic, community-based solutions to the issues facing urban communities.

While concerns about privacy are valid and important, video surveillance with the proper protocols in place could give police a huge boost in fighting street crime with the help of AI. While such tech is still in its nascent stages, one day in the far-off future police will use intelligent analysis to spot suspicious behavior that may indicate a violent crime about to happen, or follow a suspect through crowds in the city streets. Crack AI researchers are already on the case.

 

If all this talk of AI-infused cities sounds like science fiction, it isn’t. In fact, we in the U.S. have got some catching up to do. Earlier this year, we saw the first rollout of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba’s Smart City platform outside of their native country, as Kuala Lumpur introduced their adoption of the AI data-analysis program. While this smart city mostly makes use of the tech for operational tasks like transportation, such a commitment to this forward-thinking tech indicates a future where big cities will welcome AI assistance with open arms.

Cities are often described as the best implementation of America’s melting pot. A huge variety of people, with disparate origins, interests and dreams, all coming together around one principle: that we work better together than apart. Our cities of the future will likely fulfill that promise better and more efficiently than ever imagined, thanks to improvements in efficiency and safety enabled by AI.

By |2020-02-11T16:52:49+00:00May 16th, 2018|Technology|