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San Francisco’s transit system is now using a thing called the ‘Space/Time Engine’ to track commutes

A next-gen mapping technology could help you get places faster

Urban Engines, the transportation planning startup founded by former Google engineers and funded by Google Ventures, announced today it had struck a deal with San Francisco's Bay Area Rapid Transit, as well as a number of for-profit entities like Toyota ITC, Softbank, and NEC.

The company's proprietary technology is a mapping product that allows cities and companies to track commuters, vehicles, and packages through both space and time. Unsurprisingly, they call this technology the Space/Time Engine. It allows users to account for unexpected events, like weather, concerts, and daily traffic fluctuations.

"The more you can understand how the world moves, the better able you are to remove these inefficiencies that impede mobility," said Shiva Shivakumar, the CEO and co-founder of Urban Engines, who in 2004 was named "distinguished entrepreneur" at Google.

Urban Engines generates its movement data from the proliferation of sensors in dense urban centers, such as mobile phones, radio frequency identification, beacons, and other transducers. If this sounds like Urban Engines is tracking your movements without your permission, the answer is sorta. The company receives anonymized, aggregated data through a number of ways "including open source channels that are publicly available, as well as opt-in movement data provided by its customers," a spokesperson said. In other words, its able to track you the same way other entities can, by siphoning out all the data that could identify you as you.

"Simulation on steroids"

Delivery companies can use the technology to improve the frequency of its deliveries. Cities can use it to determine when certain events, like a concert or a sports game, necessitate running more buses and trains.

For example, the Space/Time Engine can offer a snapshot of all the buses in a specific area of downtown San Francisco at a given time, as well as the occupancy rates of each bus, which allow transit officials to make decisions regarding route frequency and congestion alleviation strategies. Urban Engines also has its own iOS and Android app that offers users access to its "multi-mode routing" technology.

The company is also offering A/B testing of its product to any company or city interested in contracting its services. Karen Roter Davis, general manager of business operations at Urban Engines, said the "emulation test" amounts to a "simulation on steroids."

"Having a system that's really easy to understand — It's democratized," she said. "You don't need a data scientist or an IT professional to understand how it works. You're able to bring this to anyone. That's the really exciting part."