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Meet the startups trying to stop pedestrian deaths

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Safer intersections could start with your smartphone

As phones get more powerful and screens get bigger, it gets harder and harder to pull our attention away from them, even when it puts us at risk. One place where that unavoidably happens is in the intersections of city streets, where pedestrians, bikers, and drivers meet — sometimes violently.

To try to tackle this problem, AT&T partnered with the NYU Rudin Center for Transportation, the NYC Department of Transportation, educational co-op General Assembly, and software competition site ChallengePost to create Connected Intersections, a four-month developer challenge with the goal of inspiring technologies that can make city streets safer for distracted humans buried in their phones and the people around them.

"Traffic lights can only do so much."

"Pedestrians and cars are kind of at an impasse right now, and it’s getting to a point where real action needs to be taken," Sarah Kaufman of the Rudin Center said at one of the challenge’s developer open houses back in July. "Every two hours a New Yorker is hurt or badly injured, and every 30 hours one is killed in a car crash. So it’s at a point where we have a big opportunity to start using smart technologies to put the power in the people’s hands. Why not put safety in people’s hands? Traffic lights can only do so much."

Connected Intersections ended up collecting 45 ideas from teams in 13 different countries and 26 different states. Eight teams were awarded different prizes for their ideas in two categories: solutions for drivers, and solutions for pedestrians and cyclists. The winning solutions were as diverse as the teams themselves, ranging from proximity-based Bluetooth notifications to the gamification of safe driving.

SafeDrive App

Romanian native Tudor Cobalas — one of the team members for the SafeDrive app, winner of the Large Organization Recognition Award — was one of a number of international contestants. His team’s app eschews many of the proximity-based solutions that other submissions featured and focuses solely on awarding points to drivers who are traveling over a certain speed while not engaging with their phone. The goal is to create partnerships with companies which will allow drivers to redeem those points for discounts on products or services. "Until now we have been self-funded and we have checked important milestones on the local market," he said, "and we are open for any proposition on how to capitalize on these responsible points." Cobalas’ interest also came from a personal connection to the core issue of safety: after a close call while texting and driving in 2013, he shared his experience with teammate Eduard Alexandrian, who created the app.

Rider Alert Connected Intersections

Another entrant with a personal tie to intersection safety was Peter Pottier. The New York City-born developer was biking when he got hit by a car making an illegal left turn, a problem that could have been solved with his team’s Rider Alert gadget. Adapted from his last project — a connected bike horn (think ringtones for your bike) — Rider Alert is an attachable piece of hardware that uses Bluetooth to alert drivers with an audio / visual alert via the corresponding app that a biker is nearby. The goal is to increase awareness even if the two parties aren’t heading straight for each other. "We want to have a two-way buy-in where people are conscientious about their driving habits and bikers can feel safer riding," he told me as he demonstrated the app last week. He believes that his team’s solution would increase rider safety and in turn encourage more biking in general, and that the hardware could be modified to fit more than just bikes, and in the future could keep runners safe, or even pets from being struck.

Tug app connected intersections

The biggest winner of the contest was the team that created Tug, who took home the Popular Choice and Grand Prize awards in the Pedestrians & Cyclists category with a combination of an app and an infrastructure solution that contextually reminds people to look up at crosswalk signals. "What we’ve basically done is extend the traffic signals to the phone itself," Dan Levine of the Tug team told me. "This would involve placing Bluetooth modules in the pedestrian posts that have a certain radius determined by urban planners, and when you’re in that region approaching the crosswalk and the orange hand is lit, you’ll get the signal."

Like a child tugging on a parent's arm

The signal is a red overlay on your screen that tells a user to "Look UP!" — an alert which can only be triggered when a phone’s screen is active and the crosswalk is telling pedestrians to stop. The name comes from the comparative action of a child tugging on a parent’s arm to get their attention, and it reflects the solution’s simplicity, possibly the reason Tug won the Popular Choice award in the Solutions for Pedestrians & Cyclists category.

"We went through multiple iterations of different designs," Levine said of his team, comprised entirely of Cornell Tech graduate students, "but the place we were working from [Cornell Tech is temporarily based in Google’s NYC office] had a window which gave a very clear view of the crosswalk, so we would just sit there and watch people." The team would then leave their third-floor perch and go down to the crosswalk and ask people everyday questions based on the team’s observations. "We would have people go through their own stories, and then through their stories you get little details, little snippets that tell you things," Levine said.

The contest generated dozens of smart ideas, but right now the results are not much more than tech demos. While some apps might be available soon, most teams need wide adoption to make an impact; those that require infrastructure changes, meanwhile, could face decades of red tape. When I asked everyone what’s next for their projects, many developers spoke about incremental progress like using prize money to hire more team members, or to begin prototyping hardware. A handful were scheduling coffee dates with people from AT&T and ChallengePost. ChallengePost CEO Brandon Kessler said that helping companies get off the ground was part of the reason the contest was started in the first place. "We power a lot of competitions and many, many times we see businesses going on to grow really big, get funding and get purchased by companies, and we would not be surprised if that happened here at all."

For now, New Yorkers will just have to do things the old-fashioned way: look both ways before you cross.