Skift Take

This is the first time we've been able to make a direct causal link between smart city infrastructure and a cohesive consumer-facing tourism application leveraging the Internet of Things. This is the future of travel.

The exponential growth of the Internet of Things (IoT) and the surge of open data platforms provided by city governments worldwide is providing a new foundation for immersive, travel-related mobile products and services.

All of that new IoT infrastructure and previously inaccessible data is what’s driving the development of smart cities as digital platform economies. The real value comes when third party developers build new mobile-first, cloud-first digital platforms for new users on top of that rapidly expanding IoT grid and open data ecosystem.

In the travel and tourism sector, Civic Resource Group is an example of one of those third party developers. In the simplest terms, city agencies and private businesses are storing more and more digital information in the cloud. Companies such as Civic Resource Group develop IT systems like the CivicConnect platform that collects and remasters that cloud data to create smart travel apps.

“Open data policies are becoming the norm for municipalities nationwide,” according to Government Technology. “This unprecedented access to public information stands to transform civil society entirely, but its value hits a ceiling when that information cannot be easily exchanged.”

In December, the Fort Lauderdale Downtown Development Authority and Palm Springs Bureau of Tourism both launched new city apps with augmented reality (AR) functionality developed by Civic Resource. The company is also developing similar platforms for Luxembourg and Dublin.

Those apps pull information from data collated in the CivicConnect platform in those cities, collected from sources ranging from public transportation to special event permits to beacon sensors spread throughout the city.

So now, when users point their devices in a specific direction, for example, the devices identify beacons in that location that initiate AR messaging in the app to deliver ancillary information designed to “augment” the travel experience. That information includes websites, so people can now just point their phone at a restaurant or hotel and access their websites without having to use search.

Likewise, the new apps track public transportation in real time, and using geolocation, they provide multiple options for interesting itineraries in the destination. Users can also access hundreds of listings for hotels, restaurants, shops, attractions, and events through the in-app search and Google Maps interface, all of which can be customized and sponsored.

We spoke with Greg Curtin, Ph.D., founder and CEO of Civic Resource Group, for an overview of how global smart city development is beginning to impact the travel experience.

Skift: Tell us a little bit about your background and the business purpose of Civic Resource Group.

Greg Curtin: I don’t come from the engineering, computer side. I come actually from the civic sector, the government side. I started the company 12 years ago specifically to address and assist the public sector to use technology. At the time, mostly the internet, but over the course of the evolution of the company, we’ve moved into really cutting-edge tech including augmented reality.

I guess what differentiates Civic Resource Group is that we only work in the broad public sector. When I say broad public sector, that includes spanning out into tourism, economic development, recreation, arts and culture, because we look at that as kind of the whole fabric of a city, a community, a society. The smart city phenomenon is a beautiful hook for where the future of tourism is going.

Skift: It seems that 2016 is going to be the year when the smart city concept goes prime time. Everything is becoming so-called “smart,” and people now have a better grasp of what that actually means with the rise of things like smart homes. Would you agree?

Curtin: Yes, we’ve been kind of toiling in the fields out there with smart cities for years. But, as you said, 2016 is going to be the year where smart cities finally bring it all together. I’ve talked with all the analysts — Gartner, Forrester, Frost & Sullivan, IDC, and so forth, and to a person, they are now bullish on smart cities. They’re real, and augmented reality is real. Those two go together.

The last few years focused on putting in the guts of a smart city, such as big infrastructure projects like making smart grids for energy and water, for example. Putting sensors in the ground all over cities, and other sort-of smart technology. But that’s the extent of it for now. Without real world applications and solutions, things like augmented reality are still just cool technologies that have limited value.

Now, everyone is stepping back and saying, “How do we pull this all together and build on the concept of smart cities, smart governments, smart citizens? How do we create smart, compelling experiences for our citizens, businesses and visitors?” That’s the real opportunity with smart cities, right now.

Skift: Where is the demand coming from?

Curtin: It’s both the tourist and the business person who wants to do something other than go to a meeting in a hotel or a convention center. These are now the new mobile citizens. They’re on the road and they’re attached to their mobile device and wearables.

Now cities, including destination marketing organizations, national tourism boards, convention bureaus, can start pulling this all together. They’re asking, “How do we deliver something new and compelling, and just as importantly, something that we the city, or we the agency, can actually control and have a say in?”

We’re hearing cities across the board saying, “We love that Google is in this area. We love that TripAdvisor is doing something. We love what Yelp is doing. But, you know what? They’re taking all the power away from us.” But now, all of the same technology — the open data, smartphones and augmented reality — allow cities to have a much bigger impact on the travel experience. They have a much stronger say in how they put themselves out to the world. For branding purposes, marketing purposes, whatever.

Skift: So, people understand how the Internet of Things helps facilitate the augmented reality functionality. But how exactly does the surge of open data from governments and businesses impact the apps and travel experience?

Curtin: People will come to a place, and they want to experience a castle, historic neighborhood, a public plaza, etc. So those are actually public assets. Generally, a castle, a statue, a plaza or a historic trail sit in the hands of public agencies. Those physical assets in the real world have really deep and excellent data.

First, there’s GIS, or geographic information system data, pointing to where everything is located. This thing, this statue, this plaza is located in this place on the planet. There’s also data around the history, so there will be historical information about when something was built, who commissioned it, what is the historical significance. Then there’s rich media data around that physical object, maybe composed of photos and videos.

All of that information generally resides in some sort of database. Previously, we’d call that “dark data” or “data museums.” The data sits in these kind of legacy database systems, maybe for inventory purposes.

Now with new mobile augmented reality technology, like our patented CivicAR technology, we can physically connect to those treasure troves of data. We can now bring that data out and put it into an experience that’s understandable and acceptable to a regular person who simply wants to, say, experience the statues of Luxembourg. We’re working on a new initiative in Luxembourg now, which goes beyond Fort Lauderdale and Palm Springs, called “LuxAR” that will pull in much more open data than ever before.

Skift: So the end goal here is destination marketing organizations can now promote more immersive local travel experiences with smart city technology and augmented reality?

Curtin: Yes, that’s the big opportunity. Destination promotion is no longer being lead by front-end branding and marketing, basically always requiring new content. Instead, we’re actually surfacing and remastering, if you will, all of that existing and available content. We’re now putting all that available data into a connected mobile experience.

All of the city agencies, including the transit agency, the parks and rec agency, the public works agency, all have information that’s incredibly valuable to a mobile tourist who’s asking: “How do I get somewhere? How do I rent a bike, and where should I ride my bike to? What do I do once I park here?” We don’t look at parking as an end point. It’s a starting point to some experience.

All of those pieces are, right now, siloed and have their own little application, and their own little end goal, and their own little database. So how do we connect all those from a data standpoint? Then think of that combined data in a mobile application with augmented reality. Now we’re creating a living and breathing experience for a tourist or resident who can walk through a city and explore things that they would have never been able to have planned previously.

Skift: All of this applies to residents as well.

Curtin: A lot of cities have started saying, “The tourist is actually just one of our targets. We want that same experience to be available to our citizens, our businesses, the business folks who come for a meeting.” There’s a whole bunch of new markets today, which is really fascinating.

Skift: You’re saying that all of these different public assets have their own digital database, and the idea is to remaster that data to provide a platform where people can use it. How does that work, exactly?

Curtin: We actually have that open data platform, which we call CivicConnect. That’s our flagship platform. Think of it as exactly as you said it. It is a platform that will connect all of those varying data sets, wherever they come from. That might be very structured data and databases, or third-party data sets that might be controlled by Yelp, Waze or Google. We’re also bringing in all of that unstructured, what we call “exhaust data,” out there. It’s data that users are actually generating as they’re moving through the city or the mobile world.

That platform then remasters all that data and packages it to go back out to users in via different channels, whether that’s kiosks, websites, mobile devices. So now we’ve taken all of that previously unconnected data and put it together in a way that we can now start targeting users.

Skift: And cities are aggressively uploading all of this open data?

Curtin: It’s kind of spreading like wildfire across the globe. Most cities, and even a lot of national governments, are starting to develop what they call an “Open Data Platform,” which does step one of that unearthing, which is simply to provide a way to access various open data sets. It can vary from literally thousands of data sets that are still sitting in various databases within a city, or a county, or a state or a country. They’re all starting to look at which data sets are the most useful. So, that’s the first step, to create the open data.

What our CivicConnect platform does, it takes the open data and actually generates the API (application program interface), the connected API, and more importantly, the intelligence around those new open data sets. That’s so we can create something that’s digestible, usable and accessible for the actual end user or end application, be those tourism or mobile workforce.

Simply having an open data initiative, or even an open data platform, gets you part of the way. If you don’t have that next step, you’re going to end up with a 100 different applications. You’re going to have a parking app, you’re going to have a transit app, you’re going to have a parks and recreations app, you’re going to have a tourism app, you’re going to have a museums app. Before you know it, you’ve simply recreated the fragmented system just using some open data. The real thing is to bring that all together. That’s been the missing piece out there.

Skift: What’s the next step?

Curtin: The ideal is that a city has a view of, and access to, all of that data. Instead of thinking about managing dozens, or even hundreds of applications, we’re bringing it together and integrating augmented reality with our CivicAR technology. It’s AR as a service. We don’t want to be doing one-off augmented applications. Our augmented reality comes through the CivicConnect platform so you can augment things that you’re already putting out there.

That’s the real power in saying, now that we’ve pulled together all of this data around connected parking, wayfinding, museums, points of interest, etc., now we can add on augmented reality to the right places in that journey that will add value to the end user. That end user might be a tourist. That end user might be a commuter looking to park and quickly get somewhere. That end user might be somebody who’s looking to shop downtown, and so on.

Skift: What are the most interesting elements in the new Fort Lauderdale and Palm Springs augmented reality apps?

Curtin: The Fort Lauderdale project is interesting because it started with a federal transportation grant. So it’s interesting when you think about how we got into tourism out of this. It started with a federal transportation grant for Fort Lauderdale specifically tied with transportation demand management and congestion solutions. In other words, how do we get people out of cars? How do we reduce pollution? I love this connective grain between tourism and transportation. It’s a window into everything we do.

What Fort Lauderdale decided, as opposed to creating a transportation application, they tied it in with that businesses, residents and tourists really want. So they created an application, or better yet, a platform that provides a rich base of information about what to do in Fort Lauderdale. That includes where people can stay and where they can eat, so there’s an economic development hook as well.

Then we provided the underlying transportation element for how to get around. That’s where the transportation funding came in because now you’ve got a reason for telling people you can park here. You can drive here. You can take the new shuttle or use the bike share program. Again, I think it’s a couple of dozen different databases we’re pulling into that mobile platform. They’re provided by agencies from the city of Fort Lauderdale, third party agencies, the transit agencies, the local chamber of commerce.

Skift: So by helping people find interesting places to go, and how and when to get there based on geo-location in real time, that’s satisfying the requirements for the transportation grant?

Curtin: Right, the wayfinding piece employs the GIS information so the mobile application knows that you’re here. You’re in a certain place in Fort Lauderdale. What’s around me? How can I find a place to eat? How do I get there? Then the augmented reality is leading the user down that path of the new mobile experience. The user can find out all that information literally at their fingertips about where there might be a special on lunch that day, and how they might be able to get there right away by jumping on the new shuttle.

That’s all done through geo-location. It starts by knowing where you are, what’s around you, and all that information around those points. Over time, the information you can layer in and augment can be anything from promotional information to transactional information. Then more and more of that rich information around images, videos, marketing, and so on.

It’s all very, very contextual. It’s how we walk through the world. It’s called “visual search.” I’m looking in this direction, so what’s down there? How do I get there? Right? Then we’re going to layer in the next layer of augmented reality, which would be the actual augmented information overlaying on the park, the street, the port. That’s all in there. That’s built in. That’s AR as a service.

Skift: Besides tourism boards, who are some of the other big prospective clients for this in travel?

Curtin: If you think about it, jumping back to the smart city model, now you’re starting to connect everything. Airports are now starting to do the same things. We’re actually participating with a number of large firms that are looking at complete airport rehabilitation. There are some amazing opportunities for airport projects because they’re almost like a mini smart city. Everything in an airport can now be a visual, textual and potentially augmented experience. Where do I go? Where do I eat? Where do I shop?

It’s really interesting to see the airports and port authorities start putting their fingers in that tourist experience. Things can start to get really connected. The ideal again is what the user wants. I’d love to be able to, the minute I come into a city, be alerted or asked, “Hey, would you like to really experience New York?” Yes, I would.

In the near future, everything will be built right into our devices versus having to download dozens of apps, where you’re going to be asked if you want AR? Do you want a digital experience? Do you want all the data? Do you want everything automatic? Do you want just transit information? Do you want tourist related information? Turn on or off a couple of those, and before you know it, you’re carrying New York around in your pocket in a very different way than we do today. Now, we’ve got a bunch of apps that may give you a little bit of information on restaurants. A little bit of information about New York transit, and so on. It’s an incredibly fragmented experience.

We’re presently talking with a couple of agencies that work with New York City mass transit to show them how digital and augmented reality offer an immersive local experience that can tie in with marketing, transit, history, culture, events and tourism. That’s the evolution. It’s all happening now because the smart city is finally here.

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Photo credit: The new GoLauderdale mobile app launched in December with augmented reality functionality. Civic Resource Group

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