It’s the Winter Olympics, that time of year when couch-bound, chip-stuffed, dip-drowned television viewers across the globe watch professional skiers and snowboarders do their thing and think: Why don’t I do that?
The reason, of course, is the chips (and a lack of talent). But an enterprising few may actually dust the crumbs off their laps and make it to the ski slopes. There, at a quaint mountain resort, they will encounter something they didn’t come looking for. Something oft-hyped but rarely seen in the wild: a smart city.
“Smart city” has become an A+ public relations byword, a mostly empty phrase that seems to mean “places that collect data about stuff.” In Toronto, Google parent company Alphabet is trying to build the most techno-optimist vision of the concept, a waterfront community development that will monitor its residents’ movements to test new ideas about waste management, affordable housing, even outdoor furniture. But that experiment lives in the future. Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs, which is spearheading the Toronto effort, says it will spend all of this year collecting input from residents about what they’d like to see in their neighborhoods.
Ski resorts aren’t just smart already—they have been for a while. They’re experts at tracking skiers and snowboarders alike in an effort to make them really enjoy their winter vacation, and come back very soon. Cities wanting to get savvier about data collection might want to listen up.
Turning your ski trip into 0’s and 1’s begins with the purchase of the all-important lift ticket. The more sophisticated resorts will adjust prices based on years of consumer online searches and purchase decisions. They might hike or lower them in real time, depending on how well this season is selling—an on-demand pricing model used by the likes of Uber, Lyft, and your favorite airline. And increasingly, forward-thinking city services, like parking meters and toll roads .
Once people plunk down their credit cards, the number crunchers get to work. (Vail Resorts, which manages 15 facilities in the US, Canada, and Australia, declined to say how many analysts it has on staff, but confirms that ski data scientists do exist.) They’ll plug those base season pass numbers into predictive models already armed with historical weather pattern data to help them guess when and where the facilities will be the busiest, and where to shift their precious resources. If you’ve purchased a season pass before, chances are the resort knows a fair amount about you. The same might even be true if you’re a one-off, single day ticket holder. Many resorts will still retain info about your trip.
“We know the number of days you skied, the number of years that you’ve come to visit us, what resort you skied, the number of vertical feet that you skied,” says Kirsten Lynch, the chief marketing officer for Vail Resorts. That vertical feet figure comes courtesy of your actual lift ticket, which is equipped with an RFID signal that pings off various gantries as you ride down the mountain.
“We also get household information, demographic information, gender, geography, age,” Lynch says. And because so many major resorts own everything near a ski facility, they might also know where you’re staying, what you’re buying, what equipment you’re renting, if you’re purchasing ski lessons, and whether you’re willing to spring for that midday beer n’fondue deal on the top of the mountain. And because ski resorts have been consolidating like gangbusters for the last decade, that data can travel far.
Of course, not all of this info is relevant to the grand effort to keep you, dear customer, happy and cozy—a nice takeaway for cities hoping to emulate this snowy logistics operation. “So much of our time and energy is spent modeling that data and figuring out how to make the best experience,” says Lynch. While collecting info about residents isn’t always a huge challenge for modern cities, organizing the streams of numbers to actually help it to help citizens is. City officials past and present say governments need to get more proactive about hiring knowledgeable people who can separate the data wheat from the data chaff. (This, of course, is easier said than done: private sector paychecks tend to be much more attractive than those offered in civic tech.)
Once resorts figure out what’s useful, they apply it in important but somewhat prosaic ways. Powdr, one of the country’s largest resort operators, manages ski facilities in California, Oregon, Colorado, Nevada, Utah, Vermont, and Pennsylvania, and says its data analytics operation helps it plan shuttles and guest programming. “Modeling based on an array of inputs allows us to come to certain conclusions and plan accordingly based on season, week and day projections,” says Phil Harding, the company’s director of technology solutions and services.
In Vail, ski techies have found ways to pass on data to their visitors directly, through an app. Since 2015, the company has tracked the Wi-Fi and Bluetooth signals emitted by visitors’ cell phones when they’re in line for gondolas or chairlifts, to get rough estimate for how long the wait will be. (Smart public transit systems like London’s Underground have tried this too, to get an idea for how riders use their stations.) Way above sea level, skiers and riders just pulling on their boots in the morning can then use app to monitor how many people are already in line throughout the facility, and plot out their day. After a few years of collection, the resorts can now also give their visitors access to historical data, so they can plan their mountain attack before they even leave their sad, cold city apartments.
Of course, for most cities, the barrier to entry isn’t always a lack of creative data ideas. It’s collecting and then finding efficient ways to actually use the numbers. Good luck scrounging up the money to capture anonymous phone data across an entire urban area—much less convincing your people to wear RFID-enabled tags as they go about their business. Ski resorts, at least the big ones, tend to be cash-rich places with hard entry and exit points, in ropeway form.
Still, this is the kind of in-advance transportation applications that cities have strived to provide their residents—because it works. Research suggests that bus-tracking phone apps promote ridership. Passengers like the certainty of knowing their bus is really, truly on its way. The wait feels shorter that way.
No one yet knows quite what to make of the “smart city” concept, and whether it’s worth what big companies like Alphabet, Siemens, Ford, IBM, and Amazon would like to charge places to use their tech—in money and in knowledge. But if officials want to get to know the concept a bit better, the wins and the tradeoffs, perhaps they should head to the mountains. Well, maybe next week. The Olympics are on.
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