Civic News

Northside Festival ponders new frontiers in urban interconnectivity

From fighting unscrupulous landlords to developing smart-home projects, “The Future Connected City” panel explored how data is reshaping urban life.

Members of "The Future Connected City" panel speak at the Wythe Hotel, June 11, 2015.

(Photo by Gregoire Molle)

In a room on the first floor of Williamsburg’s Wythe Hotel, the air conditioning comes as a relief during an especially hot Thursday afternoon. A panel — “The Future Connected City” — is taking place as part of the innovation track of the Northside Festival. One panelist, Heat Seek’s Noelle Francois, is decidedly unseasonal: She’s explaining how the civic hacking outfit is working to make sure tenants get appropriate heating in their apartments during the winter months. The key to achieving this goal? Data.
Heat Seek’s collection of data across multiple buildings is just one manifestation of how interconnectivity might change the way people live in cities. Francois was joined on Thursday’s panel by other believers in the power of data to improve the lives of city dwellers of all stripes.
Francois explained the problem Heat Seek is hoping to solve. In gentrifying areas — particularly Bed-Stuy and Bushwick, as well as in the South Bronx and Harlem — “a small subset of unscrupulous landlords” are withholding heat to make their tenants leave voluntarily, so they can rent the place to other tenants at a higher price, she said.
Proving that a landlord is not providing heating to an apartment is a difficult task. “Part of what Heat Seek is trying to do is provide impartial data to say, ‘This is what the temperature was,'” Francois said. Heat Seek puts sensors in apartments where tenants say their landlord is not providing heat. The sensors take a temperature reading of the room every hour, compare it with the temperature outside and include in their calculation the time of day and year. The data is sent to Heat Seek servers and organized in graphs, which could potentially be taken to court to make the case for the tenants. Heat Seek has not yet defended such a case in court, though Francois said the sensors are changing landlord behavior.
Another place where interconnectivity might be taken to the next level is in Midtown Manhattan, from West 30th to 34th Streets, between 10th and 12th Avenues. That’s the location of the future Hudson Yards, a massive housing and commercial real estate project. According to Jay Cross, the president of the company carrying out the project, interconnectivity is expected to be a major draw.
“We’re building land from scratch, we’re building these decks,” Cross said. And within those decks, Cross added, they can build “infrastructure channels that allow us to move waste, move fiber, move electricity, move thermal.”
Cross wants to improve connectivity in the area in two major ways:


  1. He wants tenants to feel more connected to their apartments. “You’ll be able to do things in your apartment that you won’t be able to do anywhere else in Manhattan,” Cross said. “So you’ll be able to talk to your apartment from wherever you are.” That means checking in on HVAC systems or opening electronic locks, for example.
  2. Cross wants tenants from buildings nearby to be more connected to each another. “In Manhattan, if you have ten buildings on the street, they’re not connected to each other,” he said. “In our case, all the buildings are connected together: security systems, energy management. … We can utilize best practices from one building to another because we have the data. We don’t have that when the buildings are independent.”

Neelie Kroes would like to bring the interconnectivity concept to a much bigger level — across the Atlantic Ocean.
Kroes is The Netherlands’ special envoy for startups and the country’s former Secretary for Transport, Public Works and Water Management. In a speech about “progress in urban connectivity,” Kroes said she’d like to see more American companies crossing the ocean to “cooperate with European startups.” To that end, last year’s Northside Festival featured a Dutch Pitch Session.
“Quite a number of Dutch startups are coming over,” Kroes said. “To Boston, to the West Coast. They are quite successful, they are taking excellent initiatives.” She’d now like to see this working “the other way around, too,” and have American companies help improve transportation and energy-management systems in Europe. It’s not empty rhetoric, either: Since the beginning of the year, the Netherlands has been issuing visas for non-European Union startup founders.

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