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How to Build a Privacy-First Company
Tara Pham, Founder and CEO of Numina

As companies work to assure consumers and regulators of the importance they place on data privacy, Numina is taking an innovative approach to designing products with transparency and customer trust in mind. Numina, a company that aggregates data to measure and draw insights about street-level activity in more than 25 cities, never collects personally identifiable information, but is still able to share meaningful insights that help urban planners and government agencies improve pedestrian and traffic safety. Hear from Tara Pham, Founder and CEO of Numina, on how the privacy landscape is changing, the inherent privacy risks associated with smart cities, and her predictions for the future of urban mobility.

Tara Pham, Founder and CEO of Numina

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Show Notes

Teal Willingham:

Welcome to The Future Fountain, a podcast dedicated to the conversation about the tech ecosystem brought to you by Orrick and NYU Future Labs. I’m Teal Willingham of the NYU Future Labs, and today, we’re thrilled to have as our guest Tara Pham, Founder and CEO of Numina. Numina takes a privacy first approach to measure all forms of street-level activity for cities and by making this real-time intelligence queryable via API, turns streets into a developer platform for the urban planning, mobility, and real estate sectors.

Welcome to the podcast, Tara, and thanks for joining us.

Tara Pham:

Thanks for having me.

Teal:

So, first off, please tell us about yourself and why you started Numina.

Tara:

Sure, starting with myself and my personal background, I grew up in the Bay Area. I went to school in St. Louis, MO, and after growing up in San Francisco and going to a very different city, I sort of realized I had just this love for the way that cities can be different and the built environment. And that actually spawned my personal interest in really studying the built environment from a public health perspective. So, I worked in a research office that studied how neighborhood design, both at curb level and at grid level, influences people’s behaviors; especially, their transportation behaviors and their choices to walk, and bike, and take public transit rather than drive. Because driving is essentially sitting stagnant for sometimes hours a day with many people’s commutes—and that is actively bad for your health! And, so, we sought to quantify that, and in that work is where I learned that, basically, researchers, and urban planners, and all the folks that actually design the built environment really don’t have good data on how people use it. So that was the seed of the idea that eventually became Numina.

We actually started the company, my co-founder, Martin McGreal, and I, when, separately, but within about a month of each other, we were both hit by vehicles while riding our bikes.

It was kind of a wakeup call. I mean, one, it’s funny because I had been working with so many urban planners and urban designers to that point, I sort of knew that planners want, of course, to make streets safer and more walkable and bikeable. But they just don’t often have the data to really justify infrastructure for bicycles and pedestrians the way that they have data to easily justify infrastructure for cars. In Martin’s case, he was actually separately also working on a pedestrian kind of measurement art project, actually. And so, in the case of his crash, I think it was kind of like his inspiration to leave the Fortune 20 company he was working in and really build the technology that would directly influence this problem—or solve this problem.

And yeah, that’s how we started working together. And we originally just set out to build a better bicycle and pedestrian sensor that urban planners could easily deploy—that would provide good data about all street users and not just about cars, and also to also do so in a privacy-first way.

When we started the company – really we were kicking around this idea in 2014 – and we were coming off of the Edward Snowden PRISM leaks and just became very aware that we couldn’t feign ignorance about the data that we, as a company, might hold. And the fact that, you know, the government can subpoena this data from you. So, we made it our policy to actually never hold personally identifiable information and to never hold data that, if it ever got into the wrong hands, could endanger people’s personal privacy. So that’s been a guiding policy our of product to date. And now we work in many more use cases and in many more places, and we’ve seen that value proposition around privacy actually only increase in urgency to different customers.

Teal:

That’s really interesting. For our audience, what are some of the use cases of Numina? To illuminate a little bit more—how you guys work, how you collect data, and how that translates into new city policy, new infrastructure plans and the like?

Tara:

Totally. Really, our product starts with our sensor. We make a device that mounts to fixed infrastructure. Often that’s city light poles. It can be buildings. And from that fixed position, essentially, observes travel patterns in the street. So, the sensor detects and differentiates bicycles, pedestrians, cars, buses, trucks, dogs. In New York City, we measure bags of trash on the side sidewalk and other places. We measure some other unique kinds of objects. And we’re not just detecting them and counting them, but our sensor also actually traces the path that they take in the street. So, what our customer sees is almost like a heat map of every object’s behavior or flow through the streetscape.

And where this is different from, say, other traffic sensors, is most other traffic monitoring devices are just giving kind of a tripwire-style count. You can think of it like a tube across the road—"oh, 60 cars drove over this tube in the last hour.” But since we’re measuring things like bicycles and pedestrians who don’t move in lanes, we really want to show how they’re using the street. And so our goal is not necessarily to just say, “oh, hey, city planner, here’s how many people passed by here.” It’s actually to say, “hey, there’re actually these bottlenecks in this particular part of the street,” or, “we’re seeing sort of dangerous interactions between cars and bicycles at this corner,” or, “we see bicycles still riding on the sidewalk—why is that?” It gives a lot more nuanced information to planners who really want to understand the experience and safety of a specific streetscape, beyond just throughput—which is the historically accepted mentality around traffic planning and city planning.

Teal:

What are some of the cities that you’ve worked with? Or can you talk about any projects that you guys have been deployed on?

Tara:

Sure! To date we’ve deployed in more than 25 cities on three continents. Our biggest market is the U.S. Our next biggest market is the Netherlands, which is fun for us because they have a much higher proportion of bicycles and pedestrians overall. And we’ve just in the last year done our first projects in Southeast Asia. We’ve worked with cities big and small. We actually started our company in St. Louis, Missouri and kind of developed our product for that sort of city customer—so maybe a city that doesn’t have data scientists on staff, doesn’t have a huge data collection budget, or at that time even any data policies really, but we found that that translates well to other cities. Kind of like a lot of products, if you design—for lack of a better term, the lowest common denominator—it’s more accessible for everyone. So now we’ve done projects in much larger cities. The City of San Francisco is one of our customers. We’re just starting to do some work in New York City with some different agencies. We recently published from an initial pilot last year some data with City of Boston that’s on their open data portal that anyone can check out. And we also recently won a global competition to expand our project in Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. So, we’re very excited about that as kind of a larger project, supported by the Toyota Mobility Foundation. And we do actually work—so, those are all actual city or pretty closely municipal-partnered customers—we do also work with private sector companies. Those are real estate developers, technology companies, mobility companies. Some of the work I’m really excited about right now is measuring, for example, the adoption of micro-mobility in cities—so, understanding how do scooters and, I guess, both of the moped-style scooter and the kickboard-style e-scooter – how are those are being used in streets. Also, how are things like outdoor dining now affecting traffic flows, and how are slow streets initiatives, how are those operating? How many people are using streets when they are closed off from cars? I think those are all really exciting kind of new-use cases that have come to the fore in the last year-to-two-years.

Teal:

I remember the e-scooter discussion being a heated topic when they first came online about—what was it—five years ago, now? Have you found whether or not they are favorable to cities and traffic, or do they tend to slow things down?

Tara:

So, I think where we’ve interfaced with that problem more is around…honestly, where scooters are left. I think when people use scooters, they’re using the same infrastructure often that pedestrians and bicyclists use. But I know one of the…kind of…areas of contention between both cities themselves, the municipal operators and communities, and the scooter companies is, for example, where are they being parked? And are there too many of them, in some cases, in the wrong places? And how are they actually creating accessibility challenges? If, for example, they’re blocking ramps or areas of the sidewalk that certain street users need to use because say they’re in a wheelchair or pushing a stroller or something like that. So those are questions that we’re looking to help answer more.

I will say that during the pandemic, all mobility patterns just totally got turned on their head. So, we saw, in measuring the Brooklyn Greenway, which is the 26-miles of connected Brooklyn waterfront in New York City, we saw massive upticks in—especially bicycle activity and kind of all throughout the day. I think what was interesting is we just saw normal commuter patterns completely disappear, and actually peaks and dips happened at all different times of the day that were surprising. And, unfortunately, in a lot of cities, the scooter programs were just completely shut down or removed. So, I think we’re kind of just getting into that now – seeing programs reopen. And in New York City what’s interesting is we’ve seen more mopeds appear. So, Revel, which has been operating for a while now, they kind of reentered New York City. Now Lime has a moped product on the streets. So, we’re interested in seeing how those get sort of picked up and where they go in this kind of new, interesting pattern of life we see in New York City that has always historically been very—well, it is a 24/7 city, for sure, but there are, of course, certain commercial districts that have very clear rush hours and things like that, and all that seems to be changing a little bit.

Teal:

Have you seen some of the travel patterns from the pandemic change permanently? Or have they returned to normal?

Tara:

We are seeing now more pedestrian patterns return to normal in commercial districts. For example, we measure around Grand Central Station, and in mid-March last year, traffic completely fell – not to complete zero, but it was a very stark drop. And it came back and sort of ebbed and flowed over the past year. But starting in the spring, we saw it really actually come back to almost pre-pandemic levels. I think something that is cool, like, in how we’re measuring the Brooklyn Greenway, is seeing that it seems like people who might not have traveled there before either discovered it and now feel comfortable and are using it a lot more, like, regularly. Or maybe because people moved there are different commuter patterns. But we are seeing a more sustained increase in adoption of amenities like that—where there’s just a lot more bike ridership.

Teal:

That’s really interesting. I wanted to touch on…sort of this rapid rollout of smart city and monitoring technologies across cities and countries around the world. A lot of critics are warning that legislation protecting citizens’ privacy hasn’t caught up yet. What are some examples of cities that are getting this right? And what are some examples of policies that are successful that certain cities—who may be behind—should adopt?

Tara:

That’s a great question. Just to kind of explain some of what the real problem in the question is…when we scale surveillance technologies across cities, one of the biggest problems is that these technologies—aside from potentially violating individuals’ privacy, which is, technically speaking, kind of like an ethical debate. Some people might not have a problem with that, others do, and that’s sort of a philosophical issue. Aside from that, the bigger problem is that technologies have so many biases built in. At least, as far as we’re concerned, when we’re talking about computer vision, which is the form of AI that my company specializes in. And in our case, we measure the public realm—so the space between buildings. This is streets, sidewalks, plazas, even if they’re privately-owned spaces, they’re spaces that sort of anyone in the public could walk through. And when they walk through these spaces, they don’t opt-in to be measured. And that is why Numina commits to protecting their privacy as much as possible. And the problem with AI technologies having these biases is—it’s really everything downstream of that initial AI detection or decision now also has those biases built in and even reinforced.

Some things that I think are important that we think about from a policy perspective is: one, we need to have more legislators and policymakers who are tech savvy. One of the biggest problems we face right now—and this was very clear when we see people like Mark Zuckerberg testify in front of the Senate—is our policymakers don’t understand the technology enough to ask the right questions even. And certainly not to enforce changes. So, I think the more people who understand the technology who can influence policy positively is great. Or at least with good information.

Some cities, like what immediately comes to mind for me, because they’re one of our customers, is City of San Francisco. They were the first to pass what at the time was in the media called a facial recognition ban—actually their policy is called the Stop Secret Surveillance Ordinance. And really what it did was it added just a higher level of governance and review of technologies that the city purchased, so that they knew that companies weren’t inadvertently or on the side collecting data they weren’t supposed be that was potentially personally identifiable.

Teal

Another interesting thought that comes to mind is citizens. You’re talking about how a lot of people in government are not tech savvy, and the same actually goes for a lot of the population. We’re pretty privileged to be millennials and younger, having grown up and are native to this stuff, but there is a huge number of Americans – we’re talking about the U.S. specifically, but globally as well – who are unaware of what data is being collected about them, what privacy issues they could potentially run into. It sounds like education across the board – government, citizen – needs to be prioritized. What are some things you think that cities should be doing to educate the population about these new technologies that are being adopted that could potentially inflict upon their rights to privacy?

Tara:

Excellent point. I would say, from our perspective, because we deploy sensors, hardware devices in the public realm…while there can be information found online about products like ours, what I would love to see is more signage on-site because the reality is most citizens aren’t looking up at a light pole thinking, “oh, what is that thing there?” and then going home and doing a full online search and research project on it. But, if you’re walking by and see a sign that literally says, “what is this device? why is it being used?” you’re going to be a lot more informed and feel a lot more comfortable about it. And there are some cities and projects that have addressed this. One that we’ve actually worked with was spun out of Sidewalk Labs, which is Alphabet’s Smart City arm, and it is called Digital Transparency in the Public Realm, DTPR. We were actually deployed on one of Sidewalk’s properties in Toronto. They used it there for us, and then actually City of Boston also used this protocol. It’s essentially a set – it’s open-source – it’s a set of signage that identifies what data collection is happening in any particular place, and then it gives you information about: how it works, what the implications are, what are the privacy risks, what measures are being taken to protect privacy, why is it being collected. I think one of the biggest factors for citizens when thinking about privacy is, “what am I going to get out of it? I’m willing to maybe sacrifice maybe some element of privacy if I know there’s an important benefit.” In the same way that in medical research we might say, “yeah, when I am diagnosed with a disease I will happily report that to the CDC, because I know that the CDC is monitoring this nationally and using those numbers to prioritize what treatments and cures to fund and hopefully find that will benefit me ultimately.” But when it comes to walking through a street, the question is, you know…“I don’t want to give up pictures of my face. I don’t want you to know that I specifically am here.” But if I could know that just…I was being counted and this might actually influence what sanitation services my street gets, or if I get a bike lane…that seems highly valuable to me. So, I think some of the education really needs to be focused on one, legibility, making it very clear—to all kinds of citizens of all different technical literacy levels—what’s happening, and also communicating the cost and benefit of it. What privacy risks are there? What benefits do I stand to gain? What is the ‘why’ of why is this happening? And then my hope is, optimistically, that that builds trust with technology and government. I think, especially in the U.S., we have this unique culture of kind of, unfortunately, distrusting government and technology. And I do think that sometimes that’s because government has tried to hide things, and if they actually gave citizens credit and educated them fully and gave citizens more choice and voice in some of the decisions around anything—whether that’s technology or policy or something else—I optimistically believe that people would be more trusting of the government, and we could all do more together.

Teal

I fully agree with that. And with that in mind, I would love to know what, for you, an ideal city is like.

Tara:

I’ve lived in a few cities—big and small. The thing that I’ve enjoyed in all of them is some level of density. I think that’s because density correlates often with walkability and proximity of things like your friends, and your favorite restaurant, and all that stuff. It’s funny now living in New York—I actually think a car free New York would be amazing! I’m not advocating that the world gets rid of cars. I think there are a lot of mobility companies and thought leaders who kind of play with that idea. I actually believe that cars have function, and they are necessary sometimes. But I think we could be doing a lot more to minimize the necessity of cars. So, a place like New York is very interesting because you have the density to really be able to justify more delivery of things on hand trucks, on bicycles, and on little carts. You have public transit on a level that most other cities don’t. And so, I wish that we had more car-free neighborhoods. I think it’s sort of simplistic, and it’s not a silver bullet for everything, but I just think so much would change…like how cities allocate resources would change immensely. People’s sense of safety – it’s amazing how walking with a child on a street with cars around is terrifying. Walking your dog on a street with cars is kind of terrifying sometimes. I think that, yeah, that’s a bit…in some ways…simplistic, but I do get more and more excited about that idea every day. I think some of the slow streets that have been implemented during COVID really drove that point home. We got to experience it firsthand a little bit, which is really neat.

Teal

Yeah, that was great. One of the few silver linings in an otherwise obviously terrible situation, but it was an interesting experiment to kind of be a part of. And how about the future of Numina? What are your guys’ plans for the next five-, 10- and more years?

Tara:

So, we’re doing this project in Kuala Lumpur that I’m really excited about because it is a little bit of a peek into the future of what I hope is Numina globally. What we’re doing there is we’ll be implementing a network of sensors in what for them is going to be a mobility innovation sandbox, and we will open our data. So, our product delivers data and insights through a web dashboard and also through an API. We’re going to open that API to anyone who wants to use the data. So, this is one of the benefits of the fact that our data holds no personally identifiable information—is that it’s safe to share with other…across city agencies, but also with other app builders, and companies, and civic hackers. And so, our vision is for Numina data to be like a utility—similarly to how today everyone uses internet to run their business. Well, in the future—especially if there are more forms of mobility in the street, so not just cars, and bicycles, and pedestrians, but scooters and all these other vehicles we’ve yet to imagine—having real-world queryable data about them that can be pulled into your delivery apps, or your mobility-as-a-service applications, into urban planning applications, what have you. Our thought is this data is going to be the necessary utility for all this activity. And we’re getting to do this first in Kuala Lumpur, which is interesting. We’ve done some small sandboxes elsewhere, but this will be our biggest implementation of that particular concept to date.

Teal

That’s very cool. Our last question: are you optimistic for the future of privacy in cities?

Tara:

I am optimistic because I think it’s a choice that we can make as citizens, as policy makers. And I think now enough people understand the implications of mass data collection and irresponsible data collection—that there are a lot more thoughtful conversations and, in general, just a lot more demand for privacy. So I think in that regard I’m optimistic. Overall, I’m optimistic for cities because I think, obviously, the biggest challenge of our time is climate change and cities are already… like, if you want to have the lowest carbon footprint—move to a city. If you want to the best thing as an individual to fight climate change—move to a city. And I think because there are these densities of resources, and the way that we can change a policy and it effects so many people. I think that actually cities are going to be our biggest tool against climate change, which is cool.

Teal:

That’s very cool. I think that’s a really awesome note to end on, and especially about the advice to move to cities if people are really concerned about climate change. So, thank you so much Tara for all of that insight, and thank you for joining us at The Future Fountain.

Tara:

Thank you, Teal.