Four Questions For Founders | Citiesense

By New Lab / December 18, 2019
Citiesense Co-Founders Volkan Unsal and Starling Childs

 

1. Why did you start Citiesense? Do you remember the moment when you first thought of the idea?

I started Citiesense because I believe the most fundamental thing needed to improve cities is only marginally accessible to those that need access to it. I’m talking about local data and insight into the ground conditions neighborhood-to-neighborhood. This is the data that planners, developers and local stakeholders all need access to in order to work together to improve cities from the neighborhood up. I’m on a mission to make local data accessible for downtown communities and their partners. My co-founders and I are achieving this by providing downtowns and mixed-use neighborhoods with a powerful cloud-based mapping platform that helps the community take ownership of data about their neighborhood. They use the platform to work together around a single source of truth about the real estate, businesses and public spaces they all need to improve in order to achieve their goals as stakeholders. In other words, we’re developing a first-of-it’s-kind productivity platform designed specifically for downtowns.

I’ve been interested in solving this problem since my time at Cornell studying Landscape Architecture when I saw firsthand how impactful a well designed public space could be for a community. Building Citiesense has been a gradual and collaborative journey that started when I was in grad school.

I met my two co-founders, Carl and Volkan, toward the end of my masters degree program at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. The three of us initially started building the platform and testing it with city governments, one of which was Detroit, MI. There was one particular meeting with the Detroit Mayor’s office back in 2016 where we were discussing how Citiesense would be used to create a data-driven channel to Detroit’s different neighborhood communities. It became particularly clear after this meeting that we needed to focus on a community-first approach for the product rather than a product designed specifically for the city government. We chose to launch Citiesense for beta testing in New York City as a result of this realization. We identified New York as the best city for us to start in based on the diverse mix of different neighborhood communities for us to work with. We knew New York would present opportunities to test our ideas with many different types of communities and ensure the product was adding real value before scaling our business to other downtowns.

2. How do you see Citiesense impacting how we live our lives?

Whether you’re a visitor or a local resident, you’ll appreciate that knowing about the mix of things to do, see and be part of locally is helpful whenever you step out onto the sidewalk. Citiesense is already enabling organizations managing Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) across New York to become better sources of local data, helping you connect with their downtown business communities. For an example of how our platform is achieving this, visit www.liclocal.nyc. This local neighborhood guide is synced to physical signage all over Long Island City (LIC) that you can instantly interact with using your phone’s camera. The Long Island City Partnership uses its Citiesense account to connect you to a rich local source of information about businesses, arts, and events around LIC.  You can learn more about this neighborhood guide use case here.

In addition, while much less obvious on the surface, Citiesense is also improving your experience as you walk around certain streets, plazas and public spaces. The platform helps local organizations track and manage assets in these spaces like bike racks, tree pits, and benches ensuring they perform well for the many people that depend on them daily for mobility, commerce, and social interaction. For more insight into this, you can explore our 34th Street use case.

At Citiesense, we see cities as a platform for progress, particularly in downtowns where the majority of our commercial activity and social interaction take place. Our lives in cities are indirectly tied to the success of our downtowns. Larger cities like New York tend to have several downtowns, often with each neighborhood community able to identify a downtown district or a commercial corridor that includes busy public spaces where the majority of the community’s commerce takes place. Cities and neighborhoods with strong downtowns are able to offer a higher quality of life for the people that live, work, and play in these places.

3. How have New York and New Lab positively impacted the development of your business?

I moved to New York in late 2015 to work with Volkan on launching Citiesense and testing our ideas for better access to local data and new local data governance. Carl was still at Yale at the time earning not one, but two master’s degrees; one in Architecture and one in Business Administration (MBA).  We all believed then and still do today that New York is the very best place to be if you want to create solutions for an urban world.

New Lab is a tremendous partner for Citiesense to have. This community of like-minded founders and staff is wonderful to be part of. We joined New Lab in 2018 to participate in the Circular City Program’s first phase of research. We had been working with the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership at the time to test our first version of the Citiesense platform. This research program, with support form the NYCEDC, provided additional validation for the work we were exploring with Downtown Brooklyn. It culminated in new research from Cornell Tech, Gov Lab, and Columbia about urban technologies and local data governance, specifically how “Circular Data” can lead to stronger more innovative and resilient communities. This is the type of research cities need to be able to learn from today in order to apply a place-based approach to finding pragmatic solutions to the mix of challenges today’s downtowns face. It was great to kick this off with New Lab, and we look forward to continuing to build upon this research as our work with Citiesense moves forward and scales to new downtowns that need access to their own local data.

4. What’s the message you want to send to people about the power of technology? 

Collaborative people create great cities. I spent the first part of my career consulting with communities around the world as a city planner and urban designer. I loved this work. I was able to get to know different communities and see first hand how neighborhoods were developing. If there’s one thing that these communities had in common, no matter where I looked, it’s that collaboration is the key to building strong neighborhoods in cities and advancing civic society. I see it everywhere; the same need for collaboration supported by hyper-local information. Community collaboration around local knowledge and data plays a central role in any successful planning and development process for a neighborhood or downtown.

We want Citiesense to ultimately strengthen collaboration in cities of all sizes by making local data accessible to the people that want to be part of dense urban places. As individuals, I think everyone is beginning to understand the risks associated with using free technologies like Facebook and Google. Our own personal data has clearly been exploited by opportunistic technology companies and their investors. I believe neighborhood communities and local stakeholders face similar risks if they rely on third parties that claim to be the source of truth for information about the neighborhood. This leads down a path where local data is not owned and controlled by the neighborhood community. Rather the data and information about the community is controlled by third parties that stand to profit off of this position as the best source of information about that place, be it a neighborhood, downtown, city or village.

The work New Lab and Citiesense are doing together with Downtown Brooklyn and other neighborhoods through local initiatives like the Circular City program is making local data more accessible to the people that want to be valuable stakeholders in a community, rather than to the people solely interested in profiting off of the community, sometimes even at the expense of the community. To me, this is how we will make the most difference, by building a framework for more ethical local data ownership and helping downtowns be more productive places as a result.

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