For Investors, Property Tech Goes Far Beyond a Smart Home

At first listen, the term “property tech” seems to fit comfortably within the context of ultra-luxurious modernism. We picture something at home within sleek glass-and-metal walls and minimalist design. We imagine an -powered abode where the temperature, light, and -connected outlets can be adjusted with a few smartphone taps or an offhand remark, and a security app allows you to video chat doorstep visitors from halfway around the world.

These products align with the average consumer’s idea of residential technology. But for those in the commercial real estate sector, “property tech” has an entirely different definition — one far removed from the realm of modernist homeowners and IoT-enthusiasts. In fact, far from being an unnecessary luxury, property tech stands a good chance of revolutionizing commercial real estate at every point, from development to sales to property management.

Prop Tech: A Promising New Frontier for Commercial Real Estate

As defined by Tech Target,  refers to the “use of information technology (IT) to help individuals and companies research, buy, sell, and manage real estate.” Innovative PropTech solutions are usually designed to facilitate greater efficiency and connectivity in the real estate market, allowing consumers and vendors at all levels to achieve their goals quickly and at high quality. While PropTech capabilities vary widely across products, they tend to fall into three broad categories: smart home, real estate sharing, and .

The first category encompasses the majority of the IoT-powered home devices mentioned at the top of this piece — the smart thermostats, remotely-controlled home systems, and digital security solutions. Real estate sharing refers to online platforms like Airbnb, Redfin, and Zillow, which facilitate the advertisement and sale of real-world properties. The last term is all but self-explanatory; “fintech” references any tool that assists in real estate financial management or transactions.

The potential that PropTech holds to reform the commercial real estate sector is off the charts — and investors know it. According to a recent , global investment in real estate technology netted an incredible $12.6 billion across 347 deals in 2017 alone, $6.5 billion of which funneled directly to U.S.-based companies. Re:Tech researchers further noted that investment trends indicated a great deal of early interest in untested PropTech solutions, with early-stage companies receiving “the lion’s share” of funding dollars.

Early Successes Illustrate High Potential

This flurry of investor interest isn’t without basis. The PropTech sector has seen runaway growth and concrete success in recent years; aside from the evident popularity of digital-forward platforms like Airbnb and Zillow in the rental and buying markets, adoption of smart home technology has reached a fever pitch. Deloitte reports that sensor deployment in real estate is projected to grow at a  and will likely top 1.3 billion in 2020.

Some companies have even incorporated cutting-edge PropTech innovations into their business model to remarkable success. Take the Texas-based real estate investment firm Amherst Holdings as an example. Last year, Forbes profiled  and data modeling during the asset identification process, noting how Amherst used AI not only to discover investment properties, but also to make dozens of offers per day on potentially lucrative homes. The strategy has paid off; today, the investment firm is thriving, and its portfolio encompasses an incredible 16,000 homes across the American Sunbelt region.

New York: A New Sandbox for PropTech Creativity?

Now, however, companies may not need to foray into PropTech testing without support. Last November, New York announced that it would launch a pilot program that would allow PropTech startups to trial their products via NYC’s portfolio of public properties.  in a press release, “The New York City Economic Development Corporation will launch a pilot program that allows companies to implement proof-of-concept property technology products in the city’s 326.1 million square feet of owned and managed real estate.”

“We want to make our buildings available to incentivize the kinds of innovations that you are all out there working on day in and day out,” Vicki Been, the deputy mayor for housing and development, commented. “We want our buildings and our tenants to be helpful to you, and provide a way to test some of the ideas that you are developing so that we can get those ideas out to the market and into buildings even faster.”

In this way, the city is offering itself up as an innovation sandbox, a place where real estate innovators can test and troubleshoot their digital tools to the betterment of all — and especially New Yorkers.

With this philosophy of openness and curiosity comes an opportunity for New York-based real estate players to not only test innovative approaches but put them together into a unified strategy. We’ve all seen companies find significant success by leveraging one variety of PropTech solution. Airbnb thrives in facilitating short-term real estate transactions, Google and Amazon have cornered the smart home market, and Amherst Holdings has established a winning, AI-powered strategy for finding and acquiring assets. Individually, all of these tactics show impressive results — but what could we achieve if we managed to link them together?

The Tools of Today Could Create the RE Strategy of Tomorrow

In theory, the disparate PropTech solutions we see now could be stitched into a seamless strategy. The strategy might progress as follows — real estate operators could use  and  to identify lucrative neighborhoods and home in on investment properties, then apply -powered  to purchase those buildings. Next, they might retrofit their assets to have utility sensors that can ensure optimal utility use and management. These IoT-equipped devices could also better automate the care of a building by notifying owners when a system requires maintenance and providing real-time insights on how tenants .

When linked, these PropTech solutions can , allowing property firms an opportunity to gain better insights into how they can best use, maintain, and improve their asset properties.

The implications for commercial real estate improvement are huge — and, to be clear, this is all available technology. Real estate operators could incorporate PropTech into their strategic workflow today if they wanted. Will that change require some upfront investment and effort? Absolutely — but, as New York’s decision to offer itself as a testing sandbox demonstrates, there is no better time for real estate operators to get ahead of the curve and start crafting unified strategies than right now.

Originally published on 

By |2020-07-20T21:17:45+00:00July 20th, 2020|Business, Technology|

Could COVID-19 Kickstart Surveillance Culture?

Several months ago, saying that the “cure” that facial recognition offers is worse than the ills it solves would have seemed hyperbolic. But now, the metaphor has become all too literal — and the medicine it promises isn’t quite so easy to reject when sickness is sweeping the globe.

Even as it depresses economies across the world, the coronavirus pandemic has sparked a new period of growth and development for facial recognition technology. Creators pitch their tools as a means to identify sick individuals without risking close-contact investigation.

In China, the biometrics company Telpo has launched non-contact body temperature measurement terminals that — they claim — can identify users even if they wear a face mask. Telpo is near-evangelical about how useful its technology could be during the coronavirus crisis, writing that “this technology can not only reduce the risk of cross infection but also improve traffic efficiency by more than 10 times […] It is suitable for government, customs, airports, railway stations, enterprises, schools, communities, and other crowded public places.”

COVID-19: A Push Towards Dystopia?

At a surface glance, Telpo’s offerings seem…good. Of course we want to limit the spread of infection across public spaces; of course we want to protect our health workers by using contactless diagnostic tools. Wouldn’t we be remiss if we didn’t at least consider the opportunity?

And this is the heart of the problem. The marketing pitch is tempting in these anxious, fearful times. But in practice, using facial recognition to track the coronavirus can be downright terrifying. Take Russia as an example — according to reports from BBC, city officials in Moscow have begun leveraging the city’s massive network of cameras to keep track of residents during the pandemic lockdown.

In desperate times like these, the knee-jerk suspicion that we typically hold towards invasive technology wavers. We think that maybe, just this once, it might be okay to accept facial recognition surveillance — provided, of course, that we can slam the door on it when the world returns to normal. But can we? Once we open Pandora’s box, can we force it shut again?

In March, the New York Times reported that the White House had opened talks with major tech companies, including Facebook and Google, to assess whether using aggregated location data sourced from our mobile phones would facilitate better containment of the virus. Several lawmakers immediately pushed back on the idea; however, the discussion does force us to wonder — would we turn to more desperate measures, like facial surveillance? How much privacy would we sacrifice in exchange for better perceived control over the pandemic?

Understanding America’s Surveillance Culture Risk

I’ve been thinking about this idea ever since January, when an expose published by the New York Times revealed that a startup called Clearview AI had quietly developed a facial recognition app capable of matching unknown subjects to their online images and profiles — and promptly peddled it to over 600 law enforcement agencies without any public scrutiny or oversight. Clearview stands as a precursor; a budding example of what surveillance culture in America could look like, if left unregulated. One quote in particular sticks in my head.

“I’ve come to the conclusion that because information constantly increases, there’s never going to be privacy,” David Scalzo, the founder of a private equity firm currently investing in Clearview commented for the Times. “Laws have to determine what’s legal, but you can’t ban technology. Sure, that might lead to a dystopian future or something, but you can’t ban it.”

Scalzo’s offhand, almost dismissive tone strikes an odd, chilling contrast to the gravity of his statement. If facial recognition technology will lead to a surveillance-state dystopia, shouldn’t we at least try to slow its forward momentum? Shouldn’t we at least consider the dangers that a dystopia might pose — especially during times like these, when privacy-eroding technology feels like a viable weapon against global pandemic?

I’m not the only one to ask these questions. Since January’s expose, Clearview AI has come under fire from no fewer than four lawsuits. The first castigated the company’s app for being an “insidious encroachment” on civil liberties; the second took aim both at Clearview’s tool and the IT products provider CDW for its licensing of the app for law enforcement use, alleging that “The [Chicago Police Department] […] gave approximately 30 [Crime Prevention and Information Center] officials full access to Clearview’s technology, effectively unleashing this vast, Orwellian surveillance tool on the citizens of Illinois.” The company was also recently sued in Virginia and Vermont.

All that said, it is worth noting that dozens of police departments across the country already use products with facial recognition capabilities. One report on the United States’ facial recognition market found that the industry is expected to grow from $3.2 billion in 2019 to $7.0 billion by 2024. The Washington Post further reports that the FBI alone has conducted over 390,000 facial-recognition searches across federal and local databases since 2011.

Unlike DNA evidence, facial recognition technology is usually relatively cheap and quick to use, lending itself easily to everyday use. It stands to reason that if better technology is made available, usage by public agencies will become even more commonplace. We need to keep this slippery slope in mind. During a pandemic, we might welcome tools that allow us to track and slow the spread of disease and overlook the dangerous precedent they set in the long-term.

Given all of this, it seems that we should, at the very least, avoid panic-prompted decisions to allow facial recognition — and instead, consider what we can do to avoid the slippery slope that facial recognition technology poses.

Are Bans Protection? Considering San Francisco

In the spring of 2019, San Francisco passed legislation that outright forbade government agencies from using tools capable of facial surveillance — although the ruling was amended to allow for equipped devices if there was no viable alternative. The lawmakers behind the new ordinance stated their reasoning clearly, writing that “the propensity for facial recognition technology to endanger civil rights and civil liberties substantially outweighs its purported benefits.”

They have a point. Facial recognition software is notorious for its inaccuracy. One new federal study also found that people of color, women, older subjects, and children faced higher misidentification rates than white men.

“One false match can lead to missed flights, lengthy interrogations, tense police encounters, false arrests, or worse,” Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), told the Washington Post. “But the technology’s flaws are only one concern. Face recognition technology — accurate or not — can enable undetectable, persistent, and suspicionless surveillance on an unprecedented scale.”

While it’s still too early to have a clear gauge on the ban’s efficacy, it is worth noting that the new legislation sparked a few significant and immediate changes to the city’s police department. In December, Wired reported that “When the surveillance law and facial recognition ban were proposed in late January, San Francisco police officials told Ars Technica that the department stopped testing facial recognition in 2017. The department didn’t publicly mention that it had contracted with DataWorks that same year to maintain a mug shot database and facial recognition software as well as a facial recognition server through summer 2020.”

The department scrambled to dismantle the software after the ban, but the department’s secretive approach remains problematic. The very fact that the San Francisco police department was able to acquire and apply facial recognition technology without public oversight is troubling.The city’s current restrictions offer a stumbling block by limiting acceptance of surveillance culture as a normal part of everyday life — and prevent us from automatically reaching for it as a solution during times of panic.

A stumbling block, however, is not an outright barricade. Currently, San Francisco is under a shelter-in-place mandate; as of April 6, it had a reported 583 confirmed cases and nine deaths. If the situation worsens, could organizers suggest that the city make an exception and use facial recognition tracking to flatten the curve, just this once? It’s a long-shot hypothetical, but it does lead us to wonder what could happen if we allow circumstances to convince us into surveillance culture, one small step at a time.

Bans can only do so much. While the San Francisco ruling proves that Scalzo’s claim that “Laws have to determine what’s legal, but you can’t ban technology” isn’t strictly speaking correct, the sentiment behind it remains. Circumstances can compel us into considering privacy-eroding tech even as those explorations lead us down a path to dystopia.

So, in a way, Scalzo is right; the proliferation of facial recognition technology is inevitable. But that doesn’t mean that we should give up on bans and protective measures. Instead, we should pursue them further and slow the momentum as much as we can — if only to give ourselves time to establish regulations, rules, and protections. We can’t give in to short-term thinking; we can’t start down the slippery slope towards surveillance culture without considering the potential consequences. Otherwise, we may well find that the “cure” that facial recognition promises is, in the long term, far worse than any short-term panic.

Originally published on Hackernoon.com

By |2020-06-12T21:03:05+00:00June 12th, 2020|Business, Current Events, Technology|

Could Dubai’s $350 million sustainable supercity work in New York?

When judged from a distance, Dubai doesn’t exactly embody a shining example of sustainability.

The most populous city in the United Arab Emirates is a glittering, luxurious metropolis in the middle of a barren desert. It demands power and burns resources as-needed — and it needs a breathtaking amount. According to Reuters, three-quarters of all electricity produced in the UAE is used to cool buildings across the emirates and ensure that residents stay fresh, thriving and entertained.

The use of those resources can be mind-boggling. Consider Ski Dubai as an example; with just a short trip downtown, city residents can trade their light clothing and sunglasses for ski parkas and snow boots and revel in wintertime fun. On Ski Dubai’s indoor mountain, air conditioners work around the clock to maintain the slopes’ winter-wonderland illusion in a place where summer temperatures routinely top 113 degrees Fahrenheit.

For National Geographic journalist Robert Kunzig, Dubai’s ski slopes are just a symbol of Dubai’s unsustainable approach. “Dubai burns far more fossil fuel to air-condition its towers of glass,” he writes. “To keep the taps running in all those buildings, it essentially boils hundreds of Olympic pools worth of seawater every day. And to create more beachfront for more luxury hotels and villas, it buried coral reefs under immense artificial islands.”

And yet, despite the almost comic lack of sustainable thought that these day-to-day realities reveal, Dubai might just be on-track to outpace Western hubs in their collective race towards a green future. Only 15 miles away from the resource-gobbling slopes of Ski Dubai, a new — even opposing — philosophy has laid its first metaphorical bricks.

Now for something completely different

Dubai’s Sustainable City is an icon of sustainability. First established in 2015, the $354 million mega project aims to limit its negative environmental impact as much as possible and to become a net-zero settlement that produces all of the (renewable) energy it needs to run day-to-operations.

Today, the community encompasses 113 acres, 500 villas and over 3,000 residents. Every home in the settlement has a solar panel on its roof. Residents are permitted to use public transport and electric vehicles; however, gasoline-powered cars are banned outright from most neighborhoods. Rather than offering traditional fuel stations, the community hosts charging stops.

The environmental benefits of these and other sustainability-minded designs are inarguable. Analysts indicate that the average annual water consumption in Sustainable City is roughly 40 percent lower than an equivalent metric in Dubai proper. Similarly, electricity costs for the settlement are a whopping 40 percent less than the city’s green building standards require. According to a Khaleej Times report, the settlement has limited its carbon footprint by 150 tons of carbon dioxide per year by using biodiesel during construction.

The community’s approach to sustainable living also has had a significant impact on waste management. As writers for Energy Central recently reported, “Because of recycling, the average waste generation at [the Sustainable City] is only 1.17 kilograms per person per day, which is 60 percent lower than the average. With this, [the city] has successfully diverted 85 percent of its waste from landfills.”

Every home in the settlement has solar panels on the roof.

Taken together, these reports prove that a sustainability mindset can power an urban community — literally. Its very existence pushes those of us overseas to wonder if similar projects might find the same success in our backyards.

“The Sustainable City cannot end here,” Karim el-Jisr, chief innovation officer for the Sustainable City Institute, told Euronews last February. “Unless we see another 1,000 Sustainable Cities, we will not make a difference to the planet. A true measure of our success is not what you see [in Dubai], but […] replication by others and by ourselves.”

So, this begs the question — if a sustainable community can spring up inside a city as notoriously environmentally unfriendly as Dubai, shouldn’t a similar project work near a city such as New York City, which is already relatively green?

A tale of two cities

Unfortunately, the issue isn’t that simple. While New York undoubtedly could benefit from the car-free neighborhoods, energy-efficient buildings and recycling-centric resource management policies that the Sustainable City model offers, the likelihood of such a community springing up in the five boroughs is close to nil.

Unlike Dubai, New York City is already heavily built up. While Dubai has the space — and resources — to construct an environmentally friendly neighborhood from the ground up, New York definitively does not. The space issue aside, Dubai has put years of effort and hundreds of millions of dollars in public and private funding towards building Sustainable City. Needless to say, New York City is not in a position to contribute the same.

As Alessandro Melis, an architecture professor at the University of Portsmouth in the United Kingdom, put the matter for Reuters, “[Projects such as Sustainable City] are good experiments that can tell us many things, but at this moment in time it would be more important to focus on how we can transform the urban fabric that we already have.”

New York won’t be able to host a separate community the way that Dubai can — but it may be able to make a similarly effective change from within its existing framework.

It is worth noting that the city already has a robustly sustainable foundation; in 2016, New York ranked as the 26th most sustainable city in the world on the Arcadis sustainable index. This ranking is partially due to the city’s robust public transportation system and existing sustainability measures.

However, more can and should be done. It seems likely New York will undergo a sustainability retrofit in upcoming years, especially given recent legislative moves. Last year, the city passed the Climate Mobilization Act, which, as of last month will mandate that all buildings larger than 25,000 square feet post their energy efficiency grades near public entryways. In 2024, these rules will become even stricter, imposing fines on those that fall below a certain grade.

Writers for City Lab further report that the Climate Mobilization Act will institute a “Fossil Fuel Cap.” They write, “The cap will require buildings to be upgraded or retrofitted with things like more energy-efficient heaters and boilers, as well as solar panels and windows that reduce heat loss in the winter and heat gain in the summer.”

Taken together, this new legislation shifts the responsibility — at least in part — for reimagining a sustainable New York onto property owners. This choice poses a few challenges; unlike in Dubai, where efforts were coordinated and funded under one overarching vision for a sustainable community, New York’s sustainability efforts will be moved forward by a disjointed cohort of property owners as they abide by new legislation. It’s an ironically inefficient means to go about achieving sustainability, even if the government does offer some financial incentives to adopt sustainable building practices (PDF).

However, these roadblocks will not stop New Yorkers from achieving sustainability on par with Dubai’s Sustainable City. While a lack of resources and space prevents New York from mimicking the UAE’s cohesive approach to building sustainable communities, it does have the ability to retrofit and innovate within its existing urban framework.

Unlike Dubai, New York’s sustainability efforts won’t be an addition to its borders, but an evolution within them. It will be different, for sure, and perhaps take longer to achieve its sustainability goals — but the end result will be no less beneficial to the environment.

Originally published on GreenBiz

By |2020-06-12T21:06:47+00:00February 25th, 2020|Urban Planning|

In the Digital Age, Companies Need a Human Touch

Today, a customer’s entire experience with a company — from first inquiry to final transaction — can and often does occur entirely online. Many consumers seem to prefer it that way, too. According to data collected by Nextiva, 57% of surveyed respondents said that they would rather contact companies via email or social media, instead of by voice-based customer support.

The shift to a tech-savvy business foundation isn’t just convenient for consumers — it comes with considerable benefits for businesses too. In one report published by Juniper Research, analysts projected that automated systems would save a collective $8 billion in customer support costs by 2022. That’s a compelling financial argument for businesses. Smart Insights estimates that 34% of companies have already undergone a digital transformation, while researchers for Seagate anticipate that over 60% of CEOs globally will begin prioritizing digital strategies to improve customer experience by the end of this year.

Integrating technology into our day-to-day business operations is a no-brainer, given its potential to lessen costs, boost convenience, and improve consumer experiences. However, in our race to meet the digital age, we may be leaving one critical aspect of customer service behind: human connection.

As much as consumers appreciate the convenience and speed that digital tools and systems facilitate, they also need to feel a genuine human connection and know that there are people behind the AI-powered customer hotline. As one writer puts the matter in an article for Business Insider, “A satisfactory customer experience depends on how well a company can relate to a customer on an emotional level. To create memorable experiences, employees who are curious and have a genuine desire to assist the customers can set brands apart.”

Business consultant Chris Malone and social psychologist Susan T. Fiske researched this emotional connection for their book, The Human Brand: How We Relate to People, Products, and Companies. In the text, they write that consumers gravitate towards companies similarly to how they flock to friends; if they perceive a business as being emotionally warm and welcoming, but not particularly competent, they will still enjoy the experience and like the brand. In contrast, if a company is competent but cold in its customer engagement, consumers tend to visit only when circumstances demand it.

The ideal, they say, is for companies to be both warm and competent. Within the context of our digitally-driven world, striking that balance means integrating consumer service technology without wholly excising human personality.

Businesses need to identify when their AI-powered chatbot or customer service channel crosses over the line from useful to canned or frustrating. Sometimes, a robot voice just isn’t helpful enough; according to statistics published by American Express, 40% of customers prefer talking to a human service representative when they struggle with complex problems. Consumers should have the means to reach out to human representatives if they can’t solve their problems through automated channels.

People want to connect with a brand that has personality, voice, and empathy — even across digital channels. Social media platforms have evolved into significant touchpoints for businesses today; researchers for Nextiva estimate that over 35% of consumers in the U.S. reached out to a business through social media in 2017. Their expectations, too, are significant — 48% of the customers who contact a company via social media expect a response to their questions or complaints within 24 hours. Even so, a cold, automated response may be just as ineffective as no response at all.

Emerging technology is not a be-all, end-all, unquestionable solution to our problems. Businesses need to treat digital channels with all the personality, empathy, and care that they would offer during a client call. If they rely on canned responses or AI bots, they may find their consumer pool shrinking as customers defect for companies with more perceived warmth.

Technology is convenient, yes — however, the convenience it creates should never come at the cost of human connection.

Originally published on ScoreNYC

By |2020-06-12T21:07:27+00:00November 26th, 2019|Uncategorized|

Soon, a “Smart Home” Will Just Be a Home

As the line dividing the internet and the physical world blurs in ever-increasing ways, it shouldn’t be a surprise that online amenities have arrived in the modern home. The growth of smart homes is predicted to increase massively over the next few years, and it’s not hard to see why. They offer convenience and a modern sheen to home living, but more importantly a high-tech layer of security that empowers homeowners to better keep their dwellings and family members safe.

The pitch is a compelling one to homeowners, as well as to investors. According to statistics provided by Statista, analysts anticipate that revenue in the smart home market will grow 15.43% year-over-year. Household penetration currently stands at 27.5% and is further projected to hit 47.4% by 2023. Smart homes are undoubtedly popular; for investors, the growing market could prove lucrative.
Here’s why homeowners are flocking towards smart home technology — and why tech-savvy real estate investors should take notice of the increasing consumer interest.

Staying guarded through tech

The most vulnerable point for most homes is the most common point of entry: the front door. Experts estimate that over a third of burglaries result from unlocked or unsecured front doors, meaning a safely locked entryway can be among the best deterrents from intruders. Smart locks that are activated and deactivated remotely via your home wifi leave homeowners secure in the knowledge that their homes are safely protected while they’re not there. Security-enabled apps like Nest can monitor the status of all entryways, meaning front or side doors can be unlocked for trusted guests or service workers while you’re at work or on vacation. Alerts to your phone can let you know if doors have been breached, meaning you’ll know the instant your home security company does that there’s been a break-in. While this won’t replace being actually there to survey the trouble, it provides some peace of mind to know your home tech is keeping you apprised of all that’s happening while you’re out of reach.

Danger alerts at the speed of WiFi

Crime isn’t the only major danger that smart tech can help homeowners face. The danger of house fires hasn’t been eliminated with technology, but cutting-edge smoke detectors offer a level of security that can only be found when including the most modern safety features. Photoelectric sensors can identify fires by type, catching even smoldering fires with little flame sooner than traditional detectors can. Linked to a smart home sound system, a smoke detector can even use voice notifications to alert you, over home speakers, where the fire is centered and how best to get out. In a situation where split-second decisions can prove life-changing, smart tech is a powerful safeguard for homeowners and their families.

Words of warning

Of course, when it comes to security, smart home tech presents one brand-new vulnerability that homeowners of the past never had to worry about. It may sound odd to consider, but the threat of home hacking is a real danger in a world where locks, smoke alarms, and other fixtures are all internet-enabled. The cat burglar of today may scope out his victims with a laptop or smartphone in hand, ready to attack with malicious software designed to disable home security or just harass and annoy homeowners by disabling appliances and lights.

Fortunately, safeguards against smart home hacking are similar to the ones we already take while online. Expert studies of security flaws found some fixes that ought to be familiar to anyone used to performing a basic cybersecurity routine. Two-factor authentication, strong passwords, and keeping up with regular security updates can keep smart home tech safe from malicious forces both online and in person. While most of us are probably new to downloading security updates to our door locks, the benefits of smarter control over home safety easily outweigh such a relatively minor inconvenience.

Convenience and novelty aren’t the only reasons smart homes have become attractive to buyers in the past decade. The above security features empower homeowners today to take greater control over the sanctity of their property, even when they’re thousands of miles away. For keeping your possessions, your home, and your family safe, smart homes present the next step in control over what happens to our homes. While this new opportunity does admittedly create its own new challenges, the benefits should entice anyone looking to fortify their castle, no matter what size. In the future, we can certainly expect homeowner buy-in — and investor interest — to grow.

Originally published on Medium

By |2020-06-12T21:07:37+00:00November 6th, 2019|Technology|

The Ethics of Bitcoin: Is the Cryptocurrency Better for Banking?

If you’re anything like me, you’re equal parts fascinated and befuddled by the evolving world of cryptocurrency, and Bitcoin in particular.

For those of us used to paper and plastic, the idea of a decentralized, digital payment can seem pretty pie in the sky. But many are quick to call it the currency of the future, and if the buzz is any indication, it could be. According to Realtime Bitcoin there are more than 16.5 million Bitcoins in circulation. The current exchange rate is one Bitcoin to US $3,917.83. That puts the total amount in circulation at almost US $65 trillion.

Created sometime between 2008 and 2009, Bitcoin only took off in 2013 when it hit an all-time high––at the time––of US$1,100. Over the next few years, the price fluctuated. Recently, however, the virtual coin has garnered resurgent interest, skyrocketing to an all-time high of US $4,522.13 in August.

But what caused the newfound appreciation for the cryptocurrency? And what concerns should we have regarding the ethics of Bitcoin? Technology that seems amazing often poses ethical quandaries we need to engage with, as I’ve talked about in regards to AI.

Here’s a look at the current state of Bitcoin and what it means for banking, both today and in the future.

Bitcoin’s Surge

There are a few clear reasons for the recent surge in Bitcoin stock. First, its blockchain technology has been of special interest to some major players in finance. Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, and JP Morgan believe that this technology may improve the trading of loans, securities, and derivatives.

Second, Japan and China have begun to embrace the cryptocurrency. In April, regulators in Japan introduced certain rules to integrate Bitcoin into the regular banking system (rather than peg it as an outlaw currency). This change has caused many investors to swap their Yen for Bitcoin.

In addition, Chinese authorities who have been critical of Bitcoin in the past have recently gained more tolerance for the currency. This has made Bitcoin-related investments in the region far less risky and far more attractive.

Thanks to these developments, Bitcoin has taken a step forward in legitimacy. People will be less likely to hold it for speculative purposes and start buying actual things with it.

But this begs an important question: Will Bitcoin, blockchain, and other cryptocurrencies bring us to a more ethical level of banking? Or will the challenges of these new systems create an equally murky financial system?

A Case for Bitcoin

Trust plays a key role in finance today. But what if we eliminated the need for trust in conducting business transactions? A successful transaction would be guaranteed, no matter who you were dealing with.

Garrick Hileman, an economic historian at the London School of Economics and University of Cambridge, points out, “A big part of the problem with Lehman Brothers in 2008 came from counterparty risk and the fact that settlement could not be counted on.”

With the advent of blockchain technology and smart contracts (computer programs set to execute a transaction once certain criteria are met), it could be possible to take trust out of the equation entirely. Transactions are conducted on the basis of guarantee because collateral is posted instead of withheld. Potentially, this could avoid a Lehman situation in the future.

Bitcoin also offers the advantage of cutting costs. Right now, banks put a lot of money into the transaction process. Part of the reason is that much of banking is still done manually and saturated with paperwork. This occupies both time and resources. With an automated system, verified by blockchain technology and smart contracts, we would save billions in capital, conduct transactions more quickly, and achieve it at zero marginal cost.

While the engineering behind this technology is still not yet ready to be rolled out for use in banks and other financial institutions, the promises of automated settlements, a higher level of transparency, and an overall reduction of overheads promise a more stable financial sector.

The Challenges

Cryptocurrency doesn’t come without its challenges. Though it has its proponents, some go as far as to call it “evil”. And this isn’t without reason. Those who argue against cryptocurrency have posed concerns on the anonymity of how transactions are conducted. Case in point: Bitcoin has long been associated with shady business transactions and entities such as Silk Road (which was shut down late 2014).

This anonymity, they say, allows the currency to be used for criminal activity in ways that other currencies cannot. It could be argued that this actually encourages unethical transactions.

However, it’s important to note that the anonymity isn’t absolute. Transactions conducted using Bitcoin are made public on the blockchain. That means that parties involved can be found linked to their Bitcoin addresses, although they are often difficult to find. A good example of this is the Silk Road founder, Ross Ulbricht. We were ultimately able to break the anonymity and discover his identity, but it took both time and resources.

In short, we don’t want to create a lawless market. That means there need to be additional measures put in place to ensure that the government, the technology, and the banks are in close contact. We must protect the ethics of cryptocurrency.

What it all means

Finance often falls into ethically questionable territory. That’s why banking needs an ethical solution that’s available to all parties, that is affordable and verifiable, so that there is accountability across the board.

On the other hand, the structure of cryptocurrencies and the blockchain technology allows for scalable ethical banking. This would be achieved by first combining the digital efficiency of the currency and the scalability of computers and networks. Existing rules and regulations would ensure that the consumer is adequately protected.

We’ll just have to wait and see on which side the Bitcoin lands.

By |2020-02-11T16:45:11+00:00March 12th, 2018|Culture, Current Events, Technology|

Tech’s Growing Role in the Wake of Natural Disasters

Technology has brought us countless conveniences. Order an Uber with a few clicks. Tell Alexa you want a pizza. Let Google Assistant direct you to the nearest coffee shop.

All that’s nice, isn’t it? But tech can (and is) doing much more important things.

One crucial achievement technological tools have given us is the ability to respond to natural disasters more quickly and effectively. Indeed, tech has the potential to save countless lives and greatly reduce the damage when nature strikes.

Social media and mobile improve preparedness and response

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina claimed 1,833 victims and caused $108 billion in damages. Many experts argue social media and mobile technology could have saved lives, only if Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms were available like they are today.

Jason Samenow, a meteorologist and weather journalist, attests that, with social media, “messages about how severe the storm was and the importance of preparedness would have permeated society.” Decision-makers, politicians, celebrities and others would’ve been motivated to spread information across their networks and call others to do the same.

Additionally, responders could have accurately identified where help was needed. Timo Luege, a humanitarian communications and innovation consultant, wrote in a personal blog post about how FEMA director Michael Brown hadn’t known evacuees were stranded at the New Orleans Convention Center without food and water until news reporters got there. Surely this information could’ve reached FEMA much more quickly with social media — and folks could’ve been saved.

Now, compare this to 2012, when Hurricane Sandy hit. More than 3.2 million Tweets using the hashtag #Sandy were published on the first day. During the height of the storm, people posted 10 pictures of what was happening on Instagram every second. This enabled anyone with a mobile device or internet access to see the latest information, and helped responders work more effectively. Mobile and social media undoubtedly saved lives.

Big data and IoT create predictions and accurate real-time info

Big — and open — data and the internet of things (IoT) showed its power to be used for good during Hurricane Harvey in 2017. Thanks to gauges that had been installed inside Harris County’s intricate bayou system, which is used to collect and drain water, residents and rescuers could see in real time where flooding was most severe. FEMA and other responders were then able to quickly mobilize resources to help areas in danger.

Even before a natural disaster hits, technology can save lives by pinpointing what areas will be hit hardest and identifying the best evacuation routes. This data gives rescuers actionable insights about how to best allocate and deploy resources as well.

For instance, NASA and NOAA, along with municipalities, are now utilizing sensor data, satellite imagery, and other surveillance to give first responders and volunteers valuable information into potential problems — before they happen. As more data is collected and mined, machine learning algorithms will continually improve. And that will improve the effectiveness of all rescue operations during natural disasters.

This is truly a noteworthy development. Everyone must be aware of how technology can aid us during natural disasters. As Chris Wilder, an IoT expert, says, “Although the severity of the disasters might increase, the loss of life has been greatly reduced by improvements in communications and the distribution of information.”

Autonomous technology delivers supplies, finds survivors, and assesses damage

Victims in the midst of natural disasters require food, water, clothes, medical equipment, life jackets, and other supplies to survive. In both rural and urban areas, it can be difficult to reach everyone. New technologies not only help us locate where people in need are, but also actually deliver life-saving supplies.

Unmanned aerial vehicles (that is, drones) can serve an especially important role during natural disasters, specifically when survivors are cut off from evacuation routes. For example, in China, the National Earthquake Response Support Service is using drones to find survivors, deliver food and supplies, and coordinate rescue attempts.

In the aftermath of disasters, drones provide assistance as well. Once Hurricane Irma in 2017 had passed, drones flew over areas in Florida, assessing the damage to buildings, roads, tunnels, bridges, and more. This has made relief efforts more effective, rebuilding more efficient, and insurance claims less time-consuming.

Beyond autonomous vehicles, boats, and aircraft, even autonomous balloons are proving to be very helpful when natural disasters strike. When Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico so hard in late 2017, Google’s Project Loon sent balloons to the island, and beamed internet connectivity to more than 100,000 people.

Technology: The Key to Drastically Improving Disaster Response

I’ve been amazed by how we’ve come together during natural disasters. Major advancements in technology, especially social media, mobile, and AI, have equipped us with tools to do an even better job. We must be sure to use these tools to the fullest extent when a hurricane, tornado, earthquake, or other disaster hits. It’s the key to saving lives.

By |2018-01-02T20:36:18+00:00January 2nd, 2018|Culture, Current Events, Technology, Urban Planning|

Dancers, Rejoice: NYC’s Antiquated Cabaret Law is Dead

New York City’s bizarre Cabaret Law was finally laid to rest on Halloween, at the ripe old age of 91.

Cause of death? Common sense.

The law, enacted in 1926 (i.e., at the height of Prohibition, as well as the Harlem Renaissance), infamously prohibited dancing in bars and clubs that had not obtained a cabaret license. It was unevenly enforced and often amended over the years, but nonetheless remained on the books until city council repealed it by a resounding 44-1 vote at its Oct. 31 meeting.

At different points during its long (and in many eyes, troubling) history, the law effectively muzzled jazz luminaries like Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, and Thelonius Monk, and turned Frank Sinatra into an activist. Rudy Giuliani weaponized the statute. Others have bristled over it, but until this year it survived many repeal attempts.

Finally Rafael Espinal, a councilman from Brooklyn, introduced a bill quashing it, pending the approval of mayor Bill de Blasio.

“It’s great to see how excited the city is,” the 33-year-old Espinal told the New York Times. “We have shown that there’s an appetite for expanding dancing around the city.”

The law applies only to clubs located in areas zoned for commercial manufacturing; as the Times reported, zoning laws will have to be altered for dancing to be permitted in other parts of the city.

The repeal is in some ways academic. Because of the Byzantine (and costly) application process, few establishments even bothered to obtain a cabaret license. The Times reported that only 97 of some 25,000 spots had one, while a 2016 anti-Cabaret Law petition put that number at 118.

And as mentioned, enforcement has been spotty, though as recently as 2013 club owner Andrew Muchmore was assessed a Cabaret violation when some of his patrons engaged in what was described as “unlawful swaying” during a rock show at his night spot. He responded by filing suit against the city, dropping it only when the law was repealed.

The law was originally enacted to regulate the speakeasies that cropped up during Prohibition, though it is widely suspected that the real purpose was to crack down on jazz clubs, where mixed-race crowds often congregated.

A 1940 amendment also required musicians to obtain cabaret cards, a process that called for fingerprinting, interrogation, and renewal every two years. Parker, Monk, and Holiday were denied cards for one reason or another, and thus barred from performing. Sinatra, citing the demeaning nature of the application process, declined to appear as well, in a show of solidarity; that led to the repeal of the cabaret-card system, albeit after it had been in place for 27 years.

Other permutations of the law prohibited wind, percussion and brass instruments (i.e., the type of instruments used by jazz bands) or barred musical groups numbering more than three from appearing on stage. Those restrictions were eased in 1986 and 1988, respectively.

During Giuliani’s term as mayor (1994-2001), he used the Cabaret Law to crack down on so-called nuisance clubs. One club owner went so far as to say Giuliani’s tactics were reminiscent of a “Gestapo state,” but Giuliani, amid his “quality of life” initiative, argued that he was dealing as best he could with establishments that dealt in illegal activities (particularly drug-dealing), as well as those that had become a nuisance to their neighborhoods because of noise, unruly behavior, littering, etc.

The law has also been used in recent years to ensure that clubs were up to snuff in regards to fire safety and security, though its critics have argued that other regulations (and regulatory boards) were in place to deal with those issues.

So the law died a peaceful death. And everyone was only too happy to dance on its grave.

By |2020-02-11T16:51:35+00:00November 16th, 2017|Culture, Current Events|

Can Urban Design Create Smarter, Kinder Cities?

There is no one way to think about a city. But one thing, until recently, has been certain: cities aren’t thinking about you.

The idea of conscious cities challenges the assumption that cities are thoughtless spaces, or stationary backgrounds for busy urbanites to make their mark on. Cities make their mark on us in ways we don’t realize, and often unintentionally so. By adding intelligence to city design, urban planners have the opportunity to create smarter, kinder cities.

Like any sentient being, a conscious city affects how you feel and what you do. It is an active participant that can improve or worsen your health, your comfort, and your wellbeing. The concept was coined in a 2015 manifesto by Itai Palti and Moshe Bar.

“The foundation of consciousness lies in the city’s awareness of the motives, personalities and moods of its inhabitants,” the authors write. Though architects have long designed to elicit emotion, from Pyramids to monasteries, we now have the data to base these decisions— from small details to large-scale urban plans—on actual science instead of instincts.

This isn’t to say today’s cities weren’t purposefully designed. Most city streets are planned for efficiency; the same goes for buildings, which are designed for convenience, if not luxury or bravado. Concern for public health and comfort, though, has not always been high-priority, let alone backed by science. True, there was a brief moment in the 70s when psychologists teamed up with architects in an effort to encourage “environmental psychology.” Unfortunately, the idea fizzled quickly.

As urban populations surge, the first instinct of builders and planners may be to save and make space. This alone is not enough, especially considering the well-documented psychological effects of overcrowding. Planners need only utilize science and research to plan for happy, healthy cities. Otherwise, they may worsen the existing condition.

How Our Cities Change Us

Before planning for the future, it’s useful to understand what elements of urban design are impacting us today. We know, for example, that repetitive patterns like stripes and tiles can induce migraines or seizures, while more natural and visually interesting shapes and spaces can ease stress.

Then there’s the paradoxical phenomenon of loneliness in crowds. Ample evidence through MRI scans suggests that people who grow up in cities are more prone to mental health issues, and it’s likely that crowding is one of these reasons, as our brains are not conditioned for such environments.

Technology helps us understand the way our surroundings affect us in ways we may not understand on the surface. Social psychologist Colin Ellard conducted a study to examine the physical reaction participants had to building facades using EEG headsets and wristbands. He found that facades, in fact, played a large role in the comfort levels of the participants.

According to the BBC, “when he walked a group of subjects past the long, smoked-glass frontage of a Whole Foods store in Lower Manhattan, their arousal and mood states took a dive, according to the wristband readings and on-the-spot emotion surveys.” They sped up as if to escape a dead zone, then returned to a state of liveliness when passing storefronts.

Triangulation and public spaces foster community and reduce car accidents by implying that roads aren’t just for cars. Green spaces consistently correlate with higher levels of well-being in cities, even when taking other considerations into effect.

There are even worse ill-effects, planned or otherwise. The placement of highway systems and public transportation have led to segregation and poverty. Design features including spikes and high-pitched beeping discourage loitering at the expense of pedestrian comfort. Flashing lights and advertisements, especially at night, may induce anxiety and interrupt natural sleep cycles too.

Planning for the Future

Conscious cities, in theory, would use science and technology to optimize cities for the wellbeing of their inhabitants. This could—and should—go beyond just mental health by taking things like public health, ROI, and efficiency into consideration, too.

Take trees as an example. As a key component of “green space,” trees carry with them a number of psychological and physical benefits. A recent article by Vox outlined the findings of a recent Nature Conservancy report, concluding that “planting more urban trees, if done right, could save tens of thousands of lives around the world each year—by soaking up pollution and cooling down deadly heat waves.”

Besides these tangible, measurable effect, studies have found that simply viewing green space caused people to become happier and also changed their physiology, as their autonomic nervous systems showed strong signs of relaxation responses. Further research has shown that even simulated green space can have similar effects.

According to the Guardian, this type of research could be “the basis of a new and powerful discipline of experimental urban design based on sound principles of psychology and neuroscience,” perhaps utilizing virtual reality and other technology to simulate these types of responses. Neuroscience-based architecture and design could reinvent cities as we know them, or at the very least make little updates that pack a big punch.

After all, it follows that happier, more relaxed urban dwellers will be more productive, contributing to a happier and healthier economy. It’s a whole new way to think about cities, and ultimately a return on investment that can’t be ignored.

By |2018-10-31T19:15:11+00:00October 2nd, 2017|Culture, Urban Planning|

For Seniors and Disabled People, Adaptive Technology Helps at Home

Seniors and disabled people have specific living space challenges. Luckily, technology makes things easier.

When it comes to safety and accessibility, not all homes are created equal. In fact, a recent New York Times article highlights the difficulties of “aging in place.” The article states that less than 4 percent of the U.S. housing market has the three most important accessibility features. In order for older or disabled people to move, safely, around their living spaces they need entrances without steps, single-floor living, and wide hallways and doorways that can accommodate wheelchairs.

How many New Yorkers need to adapt their homes in order actually live there? Data shows that there are more than a million people, over the age of 65, living in New York City. According to a report by the Center for Independence of the Disabled, New York, “In New York City, there are 889,219 individuals with disabilities; that is, 11.0 percent of the population.”

Together, that means there are nearly 2 million New Yorkers that may need to adapt their homes in order to engage in standard activities of daily living. Both populations experience barriers, physical and communications-related, that the young and able-bodied don’t face, but that’s where New York grit and determination, combined with technology, come into play.

Because, whether the challenge is a senior’s desire to stay in their home, or a physical disability, adaptive technology is making things just a bit more user-friendly for people at all ages and stages of physicality.

The first place to consider adaptive technology is literally at the front door. Entering and leaving a home, or apartment, is a daily activity for most. Ideally, a door entry system with a keypad or hands free access should be installed at a height that’s convenient, usually about three-feet. Caretakers and family members can also have fobs, or access codes.

Senior safety devices are a growing field. Given that, according to the CDC, about 33 percent of accidents and falls involving people aged 65 and over occur at home, a Personal Emergency Response System, Medical Alert, or Medical Emergency Response System is a very good idea. All systems work easily; the push of a button summons emergency help (police, ambulance, etc.) immediately. The technology has been around for a while and today’s systems have three components. A small radio transmitter in the form of a “help” button carried or worn by the user sends a signal to the console, or base station, connected to the user’s telephone. The console automatically dials the Central Monitoring Station and an emergency response center monitors those calls.

On the other end of the technology spectrum are electronic personal assistants, like the Amazon Echo. “Alexa,” the electronic voice that takes requests from the user, can do everything from reciting the daily news, to setting a timer or alarm (think, medication reminder!) That’s without even considering the 15 thousand (and growing) list of “Skills” that can be added to Alexa’s “to do” list. For instance, Smart Skills allows the user to control lights and thermostats via the voice controlled system Uber and Lyft both have skills that can be enabled, making it easier on people who don’t drive.

(Of course, in New York, there are also cabs and excellent public transportation.)

For anyone who doesn’t want a Medical Alert system, but might need help quickly, The Ask My Buddy skill will send a notification (text, SMS or phone call) to a preselected contact. It’s perfect for emergencies when the phone is out of reach.

The ultimate in technology-that-helps is, of course, robotics. Toyota announced, in July, that it had completed its first in-home trial of the Human Support Robot (HSR.) The meter-high robot successfully helped a 100 percent disabled veteran with basic household tasks like opening doors and picking up a bottle of water.

The video makes it clear that this sort of technological assistance is life-changing.

Technology “gadgets” have the reputation of being novelties, but when those devices are used to help people live better, safer, more independent lives then it’s clear that they are valuable tools and not just toys.

By |2020-05-07T19:15:54+00:00September 19th, 2017|Technology|