Numina's #pointingatinfrastructure posts on Instagram, which capture the feeling I get from spending time with the team.
A good piece on how the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation reduced drive-alone rates by (among other things) forcing employees to pay a day rate for parking.
Spencer Wright - 00:00 - Yes, so I have a sentence and then I have one question and then we can kind of see where it goes.
Tara Pham - 00:05 - Okay. Cool.
Spencer Wright - 00:06 - Cool. Okay. This is The Prepared. Today, my guest is Tara Pham. Tara is CEO of Numina, an NYC based company that makes sensor kits for traffic monitoring and analytics. Tara, thanks for coming on.
Tara Pham - 00:34 - Thanks for having me.
Spencer Wright - 00:36 - So if you'll humor me, I want to start a little bit philosophical. You guys recently moved to New York, which is, I think, by most metrics, the biggest and most urbanized city in the US at least?
Tara Pham - 00:49 - Yes. By all metrics.
Spencer Wright - 00:52 - Cool. Great. And Numina, I think of you guys working on problems that are, if not like specific to, at least most acute in urban areas. So I'm just curious—what do you find compelling about cities? And what are the challenges that you think are particularly acute to American cities over, say the next like 50 years or something like that? Sorry, it's a big question.
Tara Pham - 01:22 - Wow. Big question to start. So what I think just personally interests me in cities—I grew up in a city. I'm glad I grew up in a city. My—
Spencer Wright - 01:30 - Where'd you grow up?
Tara Pham - 01:31 - I grew up in San Francisco. I think it's just, put simply, it's density, it's running into people and ideas and things that are different than you or even that are the same as you, but in ways you don't expect. You have enough people to have meaningful numbers and even really tiny tribes culturally in a city. And also just being outside. I mean this is a little different than New York, but in San Francisco, it's enjoyable to walk around all day.
Spencer Wright - 02:03 - It is here too, just not all the year.
Tara Pham - 02:04 - Yeah, most of the year it is there. I think also in San Francisco, one thing that's really unique is the terrain. You can kind of know where you are with very little context just because you always have a view of another part of the city or something like that because of the hills. Walking is basically my primary hobby. Of course, it's also functional. Lots of people do it, but it's something that I just do for enjoyment and to de-stress. It's my therapy.
Interestingly, so we started our company in St. Louis, Missouri and we actually started our company to solve the problems of cities like St. Louis, which are actually very different from New York. Just to backup a little more—what our company actually builds is a sensor that mounts to light poles and measures all kinds of activity and streets.
We really started with a focus on bicycles and pedestrians because cities don't have great ways to measure them. You know, you want to measure a car, you put a tube across the road. But things that don't move in lanes and don't follow road rules are really hard to measure outside of sending out a person with a clicker and a clipboard. And it's super tedious.
We make a sensor, a device really, whose primary sensor is a camera and we write software that recognizes in images, basically, anonymous blobs of bicycles, pedestrians. We're getting into other things like wheelchairs and dogs and scooters and different kinds of vehicles. And we process all the images on the device. So we are only sending the results, basically you could say the metadata of the imagery. We're not saving or transmitting the imagery. Part of our value proposition to cities is we're providing intelligence without surveillance.
In St. Louis in particular, I mean really, we were inspired by the city of St. Louis because it's very car-centric. In 2013, my co-founder and I were hit by vehicles while riding our bikes. In separate accidents, both bad and weird in their own ways. I was actually hit by a city bus and my co-founder was hit in a hit-and-run and he was in the ICU for a few days and he was really messed up. As we see it in a city like St. Louis, those accidents are not really accidents. In fact, in the bike advocacy community, we're trying to move away from using the term accident because they’re really inevitable when we design streets for cars and not for people. Part of the problem is that cities don't have a lot of data for non-car traffic and so we wanted to provide that to them.
In St. Louis’s case, that's a city that really doesn't have major budget for innovation in general. They don’t have a lot of data scientists on staff. They don't have a data analytics department, unlike the city of New York, which does. We wanted to make a tool that was pretty much standalone and easy to deploy for cities like St. Louis, who really just want that data but don't have, for example, a lot of budget to figure out how to get it. That problem, where we started, interestingly, we've extrapolated it to many other issues in other cities, maybe cities more like New York where it is relatively pedestrian-friendly or pedestrian-focused. It has to be, but also because there’s such density, there are all kinds of other problems we can actually solve with this technology.
For example, we're doing a pilot project with the New York City Housing Authority this spring. One of the things that we're trying to figure out if we can test is can we detect trash bags on the sidewalk, and when they reach a certain level, notify the trash hauler to come then, when needed, on demand, rather than just on their arbitrary schedule. That's something that really is a problem because a city like New York spends, I think it's $4,000,000,000 a year on trash collection. So anyway they can optimize is potentially huge savings across the year and all the boroughs and everything like that.
Spencer Wright - 06:35 - So not to get too specific too quickly, but can you monitor trash like that on the sidewalk?
Tara Pham - 06:41 - We’re not doing it right now, but that is the beauty of computer vision. We’re staying focused on the camera as our sensor. Basically anything you can see, theoretically, we could measure and create some actuator network around. We’ve been focused to date on mobility. Some of these new-use cases, like the trash-use case, will be new in this upcoming pilot.
Spencer Wright - 07:07 - Okay, so you have a box that mounts to a telephone pole?
Tara Pham - 07:12 - Yeah. It's a tube actually.
Spencer Wright - 07:12 - It's a tube. Alright. And what is in that tube?
Tara Pham - 07:17 - It’s basically a lot of the things that are in your cell-phone. It's a camera. It's a camera on an aimable mount. Used to be on a motorized servo, but that's actually going to be manual going forward. It is a big stack of batteries and a power management system because, typically in our deployments, we don't have easy access to power, so we wanted it to be a device that could either power directly off the light pole, which in a lot of cities is not powered during the day at all. So they might charge overnight while the light poles on. And then the batteries power the electronics during the day. The inverse, we can do with a solar kit as well.
Spencer Wright - 08:01 - So the light pole’s not powered because it's as if there's a switch upstream of it somewhere that’s turning it on and off?
Tara Pham - 08:06 - Yeah. In every city, it's different, but that is true for a lot of cities. I think it's a way to just improve efficiency and manage the grid demands better. Power management system, power storage, our back-haul to actually transmit data. We transmit all of our data over cell-phone network and a really powerful processor, basically a computer, that’s actually processing the images on site and then transmitting very small data packets.
Spencer Wright - 08:43 - What kind of processing power we talking about here? Is this a cellphone or is this a raspberry pie? What's the scale?
Tara Pham - 08:49 - In our first version we used the same chip that's in a Samsung Galaxy 4, so they're pretty high powered processors. We're moving to a different platform that has a true GPU in it. Right now, we're not doing any deep learning on the device, but we do machine learning that's very purposeful for streets and it is very power intensive, compute intensive.
Spencer Wright - 09:18 - Oh wait, sorry. So you're doing that in the cloud currently, but it would moved down to the device?
Tara Pham - 09:25 - No, we're still doing it on the device. Yeah, yeah, we've always done it on the device. It's just basically now we want to measure more things and so, you know, for going beyond just bicycles and pedestrians and cars, we want to have that capacity built into the sensor. We think of it like a cube sap model where we are deploying this thing and we need to load as many things onto it before it gets up there as possible. So yeah.
Spencer Wright - 09:56 - Okay. So you have this thing on telephone poles and it's sending data back somewhere to your server and then you provide some part of that data to the city as a service?
Tara Pham - 10:06 - Yeah, exactly. We do make a dashboard that's very focused for planning purposes, transportation planning purposes. It basically allows them to slice and dice the data in a street view. It’s bridging traditional, intuitive, very hands-on planning with more quantitative data science. We also have an API. So we are working with other companies now too to derive extra value from that data and figure out other-use cases, more private sector use cases for the data as well.
Spencer Wright - 10:50 - Interesting. So how, how does this become actionable for the city? What decisions are they looking to make on this? And who is the actual user here on the city side?
Tara Pham - 11:05 - Yeah, usually the user is a transportation planner. Often even specifically a bike/ped, bicycle and pedestrian planner. We’re deployed in four cities and a lot of the focus so far has been on something similar to vision zero work—so trying to prevent pedestrian fatalities, bicycle fatalities in streets. The beauty of our data is transmitted in real time.
So, where usually they're used to doing an impact study one day and then doing their intervention or their change in streets, and then a year from now doing a new measurement, we're actually allowing them to measure consistently before, during, and after whatever changes they want to make. We like to say we allow the urban planners to A/B test the built environment. They can make more temporary changes or do more pop-up infrastructure and then see how that's actually affecting traffic patterns. Not just count, not just how many people are going by and through-put, but we actually show the desire lines so where the paths of these objects and where they’re traveling. They can get a very detailed heat map of how their changes are affecting traffic patterns.
Spencer Wright - 12:26 - You're talking about literally an image of a street with hot zones and cold zones based on color coding to cars, bikes and pedestrians or something like that?
Tara Pham - 12:38 - That’s exactly what we do. We don't do a literal heat map where there's red and green zones as you put it, but we do show the paths. Thye overlay and it's visually very obvious where the hot zones are.
Spencer Wright - 12:58 - Interesting. And the A/B testing that you're talking about—that's like cones or temporary bollards or something like that?
Tara Pham - 13:05 - Yeah, exactly. That tends to be called tactical urbanism. You can Google it, there's a bunch of stuff out there about it! It’s can we lay out bales of hay or rope on the road to simulate a speed bump or simulate a bollard or a curb bump out? And then they actually look at how that affects traffic.
Spencer Wright - 13:39 - So what is dealing with these bike and pedestrian city planners/traffic planners like? I imagine if their old model is “do a study, spend a year responding to that study, and then in a year, update the study”—that year long cycle—how comfortable are they changing to this day-by-day, month-by-month model?
Tara Pham - 14:07 - Yeah, great question. I would say the transportation departments, like a lot of city agencies, move really slow. It is very different for them to have this data available. Where I think a lot of apps, you know, if you're a consumer app you're probably looking at a daily user engagement. For us that's not really how it works. In fact, the data that we collect, even though yes, the real time nature is exciting, more often planners are looking at it once a month or once every season and they look back over the year and look at changes. Looking at traffic counts every single days is not that interesting unless there's some special event or something like that. It is funny though, bike/ped planners, they’re like the people in the DOT. The DOT is still basically old guys who wear suits to work and probably learned a lot of their work on a slide roll or something like that.
But bike/ped planners wear shorts to work. They're like the fun, young, crazy evangelists in the department who are always trying to get people to believe this crazy new thing that they're into, which is bicycling because a lot of transportation departments are very car centric. Especially in the cities you’d expect–the more car-centric cities. And in fact, there’s a lot of politics around what you call a transportation department. Is it a streets department? Is it a traffic department? Is it a transportation department? Is it a mobility department? All of these words can convey certain emphasis on basically are we car-centric or not. The cool thing is our users tend to be these weirdos in the department who are really excited and they really need this data and so they're great to work with.
I think what is a challenge for our business, you know, as a company, our business is that our beneficiary is not our user is not our decision maker. So our beneficiary is citizens. They’re the people in the neighborhood who were getting a new bike lane or getting an improved commute. Our user is this bike/ped planner maybe. And then our decision maker is the CTO of the city or the DOT Commissioner. We’re still learning a lot about it. In every city, the deployment looks different. It's not one recipe that we just keep repeating over and over again. So I would say for us that's the really exciting and also frustrating part of growth stage startup, sales in particular.
Spencer Wright - 17:01 - And doing so in a very high touch. I don't to talk bad about cities but they might be stodgy.
Tara Pham - 17:12 - Yeah. Yeah. I feel bad because I've always been a big advocate of Govtech and I have so much respect for people who work in cities. But yeah, the more I work with them, the more it's like the rumors are true, it is hard to work with cities. We try to find our champions and also sometimes our role in talking to cities is actually to help our champions breakdown silos within their own organization. Because they might not be able to do that, but we can come in as an outsider and maybe be a little bit coy or naive about the politics and try to get everyone to play on the same team. And so that's fun as well. But yeah, every city is totally different.
Spencer Wright - 18:03 - Okay. So you said you were in four cities right now. Which cities are those?
Tara Pham - 18:08 - We’ve deployed in Jacksonville, Florida, St. Louis, Missouri, Las Vegas, and San Francisco. That was all with our Gen 1.5, our interim last sensor model, and we’re now in R&D for Gen 2. While we're doing that, we're only doing local projects to the New York area. We have a few pilots with some different, you might say “city tangential organizations.” So like New York City Housing Authority, which is actually not exclusively a city agency, it’s a city and state agency.
Spencer Wright - 18:47 - Oh, interesting. I hadn't realized that.
Tara Pham - 18:48 - Yeah, yeah. They're an amazing organization. They're bigger than the next nine housing authorities combined. They are about the size of Miami on their own. They support something like seven percent of New Yorkers. So they’re huge. Like the scale is insane when it comes to them. It’s really exciting to work with them.
Spencer Wright - 19:09 - And so are you deploying with them because they’re inherently faster moving or are they just kind of smaller than the city at large?
Tara Pham - 19:20 - The reason we're really working with them is they have some really incredible leadership who wanted to prioritize innovation. Their mission is also to improve the lives of low and middle income New Yorkers. It’s like the best kind of mission where it’s meaningful but it’s also broad enough that they can think in a multidisciplinary way about what that means.
We responded to a call for innovations that they put out and they are basically testing a bunch of different technologies and even programmatic innovations. We are probably one of the outliers in the program, or the black sheep, in that we've never worked with housing specifically before. We're usually working in streets and transportation applications. Most of the things they’re piloting, for example, are around energy efficiency and things that affect housing development very directly.
Part of our conversation with them was about how streets safety actually disproportionately affects the poor. If improving quality of life is making people's commutes better, their neighborhood safer, even their public spaces just more delightful, we want to help them do that in a data-driven way. We’re very much in planning stages with them, but it’s really exciting to work with them because they've really prioritized making housing an innovative space, which it has never been. They have some really great leadership there that talks about it in an entertaining and inspiring way. Rasmia Kirmani-Frye is one of the folks at the Public Housing Authority that has really champion that. And she helped found the Fund for Public Housing, so they're kind of a joint organization that's helping get a lot of these pilots and different programs off the ground.
Spencer Wright - 21:30 - Let's talk for a second about the word “smart.” So first of all, do you guys use the word “smart”?
Tara Pham - 21:35 - We don't actually. I don't think we do so super intentionally. It's not something where like careful about avoiding, but it's incredibly non-descriptive. What I've found in a lot of the “smart city” discussions is that the companies pursuing smarter cities are incredibly non-creative and basically they're just imagining a future surveillance state. I think we just don't really identify with that.
Our mission is to make cities more responsive. That’s where we take the “smart” quote in terms of smart cities.
Spencer Wright - 22:24 - How much do you see technology being, I mean, not even the answer to, but a significant part of solving the problems that 21st century cities are going to face?
Tara Pham - 22:39 - Ooh, that's a tough question. Not to discredit myself, but probably the technology is a pretty small part of it. Relatively, I think cities have a lot to solve in terms of their own governance and basic basic problems they have like procurement. It doesn't matter how much technology, how much amazing technology is out there serving cities if they can't figure out how to work with the companies that are making this technology. It's not going to matter. A lot of the technologies that cities need already exist in the private sector. I don't think it's necessarily that tech's going to solve the problem. I think it's that people need to want to build solutions for cities, which means that cities need to be easier to work with and to be able to move more quickly in general, even just internally for themselves.
It is interesting, I think with urbanization. The big number that everyone throws around is 70 percent of people will live in cities by 2030, I believe it is. We've passed the 50 percent mark. Most people live in cities. There will be many, many mega cities. So cities have actually become a lot more powerful going forward, relative to let's say like federal government. The federal government is always important, but I think cities are really interesting battleground to solve problems that very directly affect people's daily lives.
Spencer Wright - 24:16 - It's funny, I'm used to talking about cities being powerful. I feel like in New York, I'm not even from New York City, I'm from Eastern Long Island, but often times I feel like New York City's political power is actually kind overrated relative to the rest of the state. Right? That, in fact the rest of the state actually has, historically, exerted a ton of pressure on New York City. I wonder, when you travel for instance, what do you look for in a city? What’s an example of a compelling city that you’ve been to? That’s efficiently run?
Tara Pham - 24:54 - Interesting! I mean to be honest, I'm incredibly impressed with New York City. I am relatively new to New York and I am a city nerd, but I am just in awe every day of how clean, safe,, green. I mean the parks, I think New York City parks are incredible. I mean I think they're really underrated.
I think part of it is everyone loves to complain about where they live. Like everyone's like, “oh, the subways has all these problems.” Which it does, but it’s like, “come on, they’re moving 12 million people a day.” I’m incredibly impressed than New York City.
But in terms of livability, certainly, I mean, a lot of Europe. I was going to try to specify a region of Europe, but most European cities it seems are built to be a lot more livable, at least by my preferences. They’re built really dense. Culture is a little bit less big box retail focus like in the U.S. People are used to like driving one time a week to a big store, filling up their car, driving home.
What I love about cities, and this includes New York, is being able to walk to a corner store every few days and only getting what you need.
But I think I will say I am a city snob in that I'm pro-cities, but I don't necessarily think one city is better than the other. Like I really appreciate, for example, the time I lived in St. Louis for many reasons because I loved St. Louis. More broadly speaking, it showed me that there are many ways that cities can be and that you can live a very culturally-enriched, full life, in a city that's not New York or San Francisco or one of the big ten.
I loved Saint Louis because it… oh, wow, I could talk for a whole hour about that. Honestly, I think it's like a big, small town, to put it most succinctly. It's like a big, small town. It's really easy to get to know people.
When it was built, it was actually the fourth, or most of when our infrastructure was built, was when it was the fourth biggest city in the country only behind New York, Brooklyn, because those were different cities, and Philadelphia. It actually has the built environment of a much bigger city, and then unfortunately, mid 20th century, it experienced a lot of population loss. The upside of that now is that it's super cheap to live there. And so what I found, and maybe this is selection bias of the people that I knew in St. Louis, but I find that in the city, the culture is very entrepreneurial.
Everyone has a side hustle or a main hustle. But the point is that you can afford to take risks there because, if you can cover your rent and food, it's really comfortable to live there. It's super bootstrapy and, and has an amazing food scene and and it has a lot, maybe not all, but a lot of the ingredients of a really fantastic city. I'm grateful to have been exposed to that. I certainly meet lots of people who are snobs about their own cities. Not to be condescending or anything, but I feel bad for those people. They're missing out on potentially a different kind of life experience that's still really wonderful. But just different from maybe the city that they know and love.
Spencer Wright - 28:50 - I wonder about… I think living New York, it's easy to perceive maybe a split in American cities between, I mean I would put it as like New York, L.A, San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, something like that. Maybe D.C. And then everywhere else. You have those on one side. And then a ton of still great places to live. Still, big economic output in some cases, but cities that are ultimately smaller and don't have the same level of infrastructure. Then there's kind of a third category of not exactly a city but big corporate campuses. Right? And so like South Lake Union in Seattle, like Amazon acts as its own weird kind of city, the Apple campus for instance, acts as its own kind of thing.
Maybe not dealing with the corporate side as much, unless you have thoughts about that, but having worked with cities across both those areas of split, tell me more about those exact problems that your technology could be applied to across both of those.
Tara Pham - 30:12 - I will say most of our goal has been to focus on serving as an end-to-end solution for urban planners and then be a developer platform for other people to specialize in whatever it is that they do and care about and use our data in an end solution for their industry or their problem that they're solving.
I hope—I think that most of the applications that our data are probably things that our team has not yet imagined. Innovations that other people will never meet and speak to, maybe, we’ll dream of.
The corporate campus thing is interesting. I think when we started the company, again in St. Louis and for cities like St. Louis, our initial hypothesis was that if we work with these smaller or midsize cities, they'll be faster because they're smaller. There's less bureaucracy, they're a little more nimble, they're really hungry for innovation and underserved by the private sector.
And I think to a degree that that was true. We have been really pleasantly surprised that cities like San Francisco and New York are feeling urgency about engaging more innovative solutions, basically startups, and are trying to be, as well as they can, easier to work with.
We do though also target business improvement districts. We’ll be doing a project later this spring with the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership and those are interesting entities because, probably like a corporate campus, they basically operate like a city within the city. They maintain their infrastructure, they have stakeholders that tend to be a little more directly like commercial stakeholders, like real estate developers or local businesses. But they usually have a list of very acute pinpoints that they want to solve. Most bids, their focus is on safety and cleanliness and beautification. So really, streets maintenance—
Spencer Wright - 32:23 - Are these like public private partnerships or something like that?
Tara Pham - 32:26 - Kind of. They're basically special tax groups where every business within a district will pay an extra tax to them and they do things like put up the banners that brand the neighborhood. They’re very legitimate organizations, like Time Square Alliance would be one. They’re a big one. They maintain that pedestrian plaza-activated space they have now. The lower Manhattan bid is actually the biggest in the country, I think. In smaller cities, or probably specific neighborhoods in New York as well, they might just be one little corridor. Like, “oh, these ten blocks of a street where all these little storefronts are,” we have our own business improvement district. They often like hire people specifically to pick up trash or have special programming for families, special events to encourage stores to do special sales. They throw festivals.
It's like all the little community programming things. So we work with them as well. As I mentioned, we are mostly focused on bike/ped safety, but in all of these communities you could say, whether their footprint is one street or a campus or a whole city, most of them have a whole slew of problems and the things that are still really unsolved are like the unsexy things, like trash or puddles—like localized flooding, as they would call it. It's like, “oh, puddles, you’re talking about puddles.” It’s stuff like that. We’re still exploring what are all those use cases that our data can apply to.
Spencer Wright - 34:20 - So you are the CEO of this company and you guys are mostly in New York now? I’m just curious—as the CEO of a company, what are the things that are concerning you right now? As a leader, I guess?
Tara Pham - 34:39 - We’re all in New York now. Like broadly? Things like world hunger and stuff like that.
Spencer Wright - 34:45 - This as a person.
Tara Pham - 34:48 - No, I mean, honestly, one thing that's really interesting and hard is hiring. Like how do you build the team in the early days? Especially because, we’ve been mostly bootstrapped to this point. We now are venture-backed and we will continue to be venture-backed and be a high growth startup. But I really don't want to lose this scrappy, bootstrappy personality that we've had. And the trope that everyone says to startup CEO's is like, “oh, whatever money you raise, you're going to spend it too fast and you're going to grow too fast. So only raise what you need and be really careful.”
I know that's been true for so many people, I'm not so conceited to think that I'm going to be the one person who breaks that model, like the culture we had in St. Louis of just building devices in our living rooms and getting honestly the lowest bar of permission that we could to then mount something to a light pole and just like go do it. I really want to preserve that. It is different in a place like New York where cost of living is high and it is a competitive hiring market.
Tech is also just a weird ecosystem culture. I mean, I really like...the hardware community in general tends to be, I think, a little more scrappy, like “build it with your hands.” But we’re hiring back-end developers and how do we find those people? So that’s a really, maybe to other people, boring answer, but it's something I'm thinking a lot about right now as we're trying to grow our team.
Spencer Wright - 36:39 - How much of your team now has the passion for bike/ped safety and how much of them are just back-end engineers?
Tara Pham - 36:46 - Yeah. Yeah. No, that's the other piece of it too. You can be a culture fit without being obsessed with our mission the way that I am. It’s also like we've really tried to find diverse perspectives to join our team and that's always difficult. And to be honest, on our team right now, I'm the only woman. We have a long ways to go in terms of gender equity in the company. We’re all really different personality types and have very different lifestyles. About half the team actually lives outside of the city now.
We aren’t all foaming at the mouth, rabid about ped/bike safety. I think we're all passionate about making cities better because it's where people live. It is pretty critical to us that the people we work with care about that stuff. Also because you never know where your product’s really going to go so you need that common north star that people are always going to be excited about.
Spencer Wright - 37:58 - Obviously, you don’t know where your product’s going to go, but are there any particular flags that you’re looking for out there in the world to tell you which direction to move?
Tara Pham - 38:12 - Well, we are trying to have less of a dependency on the cities themselves. So that’s something. That's where building out the developer platform side of it and finding channel partners among infrastructure companies, auto OEMS, like those kinds of companies is really interesting for us.
Spencer Wright - 38:32 - Channel partners here basically means a sales team, right?
Tara Pham - 38:39 - Yeah. Sponsors of projects, or people who are like “we are so interested in this data, we will pay a premium to have the sensors deployed on our behalf” for example. Some of it isn't even because of anything necessarily wrong with selling to cities, it's just that even cities who want us have procurement issues and budgetary requirements that are hard for them to even solve for themselves. So as easy as we can make it for them to adopt, we want to.
Spencer Wright - 39:13 - So what would a channel partner look like exactly?
Tara Pham - 39:16 - There are many examples, but let's say a company, an autonomous company, that has routes in a new city, would want to deploy our sensors to gain better insights about what's going on in streets so that they can train their vehicles more quickly to that site. For example, in some cases, cities and autonomous companies are working together. And so our data is a ground truth for both of them to work with.
And in some cases, the cities are using it to basically keep an eye on the auto OEMs. I mean, cities are in an interesting place because I sense that they're still very much reacting to Uber and Airbnb and companies that in the last five to ten years came down on top of them and they weren't prepared and they didn't know what to do with that. Now I think they want to be more proactive about what’s the next wave of innovation, how do we stay ahead of that, how do we measure what's going on, how do we build the right stakeholder community? We’re one ingredient in that hopefully.
Spencer Wright - 40:26 - How do you address those kinds of concerns and remain, maybe not remained focused on, but remained aimed towards alternative transportation? I mean, I hate that term because it means that bikes and walking are less valid than driving and yet it is the term, right?
Tara Pham - 41:11 - It’s actually not hard. I mean, most people, if they've ridden a bike, love riding bikes. Bikes are awesome. And at a very, individual human level, we're telling you we can make your city more enjoyable. Think of all the things that...like I think of my favorite places in the world and they are not highways. They are neighborhoods or parks or places where you're with people or on foot. Even if you're alone, even if you're a misanthrope, your favorite place is never a highway. So we're playing to that and I think actually the dynamics of cities these days, I mean, cities want less people in their cars. Bike share is in an exciting place right now. Even just with shared mobility, the less we own cars, the less we're dependent on them, even if we're still taking rideshare, whether those are autonomous vehicles or driven by a person.
We’re still gonna just be filling in the gaps more with walking and biking and other things. The issue when you have a car is it’s just there. It's easy. Seattle has a really interesting… well, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, I got to tour last year I think, and they have a really interesting policy that I think now has actually gone citywide. Monthly employee parking passes are banned. They're illegal. That is because they want the employee to have to think every day of whether or not they're going to drive. If you have a monthly pass, it's like, “oh, I just get in my car and I'm there.” But if I have to buy a pass every day, I'm going to think about what else I could do.
The mode share in Seattle has shifted incredibly away from cars. It is little things like that that are actually not technology changes. They’re incentives behavior. They’re incentives to change behavior and they have a huge impact. That’s a great one to me because I think, when I lived in St. Louis, I had a car and I don’t in New York because it's burdensome, but I’m not anti-car. There are levels to which it's convenient or inconvenient, and I think there are lots of things we can do to just make the car one of many options that we're considering on an equal playing field every day when we decide what we're going to do to get to work or for fun or whatever.
Spencer Wright - 43:41 - And so do you see the insights and analytics at Numina provides being part of the decision to enact those kinds of policies?
Tara Pham - 43:52 - Policies? Yes. Yeah. We're not a B to C company in any way. I would be interested to see how our data actually influences people day to day and their decisions. If you know, we’re the real time layer on every map based app and that influences your decisions about competing, that would be awesome. I think we're some time away from that, but certainly policy level, I mean that is a big reason cities want to adopt us actually is like, it's not even because they yet know what the ROI on changes in the street will be, it’s that they know they need the data to report to their stake-holders who are citizens and their grant funders and in advocacy work that they want to do.
Spencer Wright - 44:46 - Are you an engineer? How did you come to a) transit and b) hardware design and engineering?
Tara Pham - 44:57 - I'm not an engineer. I'm not a hardware engineer especially. I actually started in school in structural engineering, civil engineering, but actually my college canceled at the major when I was about halfway through it and at that time I was realizing I don't want to be a civil engineer.
I'm interested in urban planning and actually more like the public health side of it. So I ended up studying public health with this little bit unique background in infrastructure and some more analytical experience. I ended up working in public health research, like in a grad student position as an undergrad because I was coming from the engineering school, and in the social sciences, that’s, I guess, a big deal. My first job out of school, actually because of the radio station I worked it, I worked at a music magazine.
It was like a few years of doing a bunch of random entrepreneurship-related things before I decided to go all in on this company. Part of it was meeting my co-founder and he was bringing the technical chops really. Most of my work is, in terms of product is on like “product” and working with planners and our users. Although these days, I'm sad to admit that being CEO just doesn't include a lot of that anymore. It's more business stuff. It’s strategy, it’s sales, it’s recruiting, it’s a lot of other things which I’m enjoying as well. It’s just a shift. I’m not doing user testing with our users. I'm not really hands-on in the product and the details of the product design at all. It’s more like we have a meeting to approve and ratify changes and that's my involvement in that right now. It’s just a shift.
Spencer Wright - 47:15 - Do you enjoy running a company?
Tara Pham - 47:17 - Yeah, I don't know. I don't know if I run it the way you're supposed to. Who knows what that even means. I really love having a team. I would say a lot of my motivation for us to “succeed” was because being a founder is really lonely. Even with a co-founder, it's just a very isolating experience. Even in St. Louis where like there's also a very tight knit startup community and you have other founder friends and whatever, it’s not the same as having people to go to lunch with and having water cooler talk and that kind of thing.
Spencer Wright - 47:57 - So kind of like complaining about management, right?
Tara Pham - 48:01 - Exactly. I love having a team. I actually do love the evangelism part because I care a lot about cities and it's cool to talk to other people who care about cities and understand why they do and how they do. When people apply to work at your company, they send you projects they've done and you just get to see all these really weird, little side projects that people have that are like, “oh, damn, that’s really cool.” So I really like that part of it.
And I like the strategy side of it too. I don't know if it'll be five years from now or 20 years from now, but after this company probably, I would like to go work in government. Not in anything elected, but I'd love to be an appointed person. I'd love to actually work in government because there’s so much that can be done and I actually think when the timing is right, governments will have a big shift, I hope to be more innovative and different and probably operate a little more like the private sector.
Spencer Wright - 49:20 - Yeah. I know some people who work across from you as it were at either the EDC or DOT or MTA and I can imagine how frustrating it is for a young person who generally wants to get stuff done to be confronted with the bureaucracy of government. I also wonder how many kinds of entrepreneurs like yourself would do that at some point. Whether we will see a shift where all of the sudden it’s like “yeah, startups are whatever, I really want to work for the city.”
Tara Pham - 50:03 - Politics are where it’s at. Yeah, I hope so. I really hope so. The cool thing about government is everything you do happens at scale and affects people at scale. I think that's really, really cool about it and I do think that we will see more people get into government. Politics are in a really weird place right now. Without sharing too much of my specific opinion on current federal politics, I think everyone can agree that people are very divided and I wonder if that will create an opportunity for people to be more focused on their local communities and being civically engaged in other ways. I'm excited to see what happens going forward. I know this isn’t a political podcast.
Spencer Wright - 51:00 - If you want it to be, it can be. I'll talk about it.
Tara Pham - 51:05 - But yeah, no, I definitely agree. I think the problem with government, and I understand why it exists, why this is a problem, but a major problem is that they have no room to fail. That’s where entrepreneurship is currently at odds with government, but I think could actually really positively influence government is like let's give politicians the room to say, “hey, we're running an experiment. It could fail, but we're going to collect the data.” I mean, Bloomberg did this well. It's like we're going to collect the data and then we'll decide, do we scale it up, do we blow it out or do we shut it down and do something different? Most governments don't do that because they're worried. Most politicians are worried about getting reelected. I think it’s cultural too.
Spencer Wright - 51:53 - And they want to sound smart, too. They don't want to say that they don't know the answer, right?
Tara Pham - 51:57 - But no one knows the answer. Or we can look to other people who have succeeded. I mean healthcare is an example of this. We are acting like it's unsolvable, yet there are countries that have come very close to solving this. I think government having a bit more of a culture where, and voters have to be understanding of it as well, but us having a culture where governments can say we don't know the answer and that's why we're doing these things to find the right answer. And data being a big part of that, I mean, that is a big part of why our company exists. At the end of the day, we are an evaluation tool for streets. Hopefully we enable a lot of other things but to the government, that's what we are., I hope we enable some more entrepreneurial approaches within government. That would be very cool.
Spencer Wright - 52:56 - Anything else that we didn't talk about that you think people should be thinking about or that you're geeking out about right now?
Tara Pham - 53:03 - I'm new to New York so it’s just hot outside today and I’m really, really excited about spring.
Spencer Wright - 53:11 - What kind of activities are you... You lived here before though, right?
Tara Pham - 53:15 - But that was like... I feel like your first year in New York, you're just trying to figure out what is going on and I was so busy. We took our first investment from local investors that year. That's what brought us here and I still have so much to learn about New York. But I'm excited to explore. I don't really understand what people do for physical activity in New York.
Spencer Wright - 53:44 - Equinox I think is the answer.
Tara Pham - 53:49 - Okay. So going to the gym.
Spencer Wright - 53:52 - Yeah, it's tough. I don’t do Equinox. I live on Eastern Parkway or right off Eastern Parkway, which is ostensibly a nice place to run or bike or whatever. But it's really difficult to do so. There’s a walkway and it's disruptive because every couple of hundred feet, there is a road. If you're lucky enough to live near Prospect Park, Prospect Park finally has no cars in it. Decades of having cars and we finally figured that out. But if you don't have easy access to something like that, Prospect or Central Park really is difficult to get a lot of clear space.
Tara Pham - 54:32 - What are the places I should check out outside of the city?
Spencer Wright - 54:36 - Well, I am from the Hamptons, I'm from South Hampton. I would be remiss if I didn't recommend that you not go to the Hamptons, at least in the summer, like the weekends in the summer. Eventually, you will get an invitation to go to the Hamptons on like a Saturday in July. I really recommend not doing it. I mean—
Tara Pham - 55:00 - Do it once?
Spencer Wright - 55:02 - I think, yeah. It’s a crazy place to see. I think that growing up there you have a different perspective, obviously. It’s really nice out there in October when it's still warm. You're not going to go in the water probably, but it's definitely the country. To me, when I first moved here, I was biking like hundreds of miles a week, which was amazing. A lot of that was in Prospect Park, but then I would also bike to Coney Island and get pizza. Things like that, for me, it was great to structure it around… it wasn’t exercise per se, but you can easily go for a 25, 50-mile bike ride in New York, but structuring it around a cultural activity was really fun. The experience of biking through Midwood—Midwood’s this neighborhood in South Brooklyn—one of the best pizza places in New York is there, it’s called Di Fara.
There’s a pizza place on Coney Island called Totonno's. These are like iconic. They’re delicious, but they're also just institutions in a way. Biking through Midwood is this crazy experience because you go down maybe through Prospect Park, then you end up in these residential neighborhoods that are just so different from anything you've seen in North Brooklyn or Queens or anywhere else. I don't know, seeing that, seeing the cultural diversity, like you said, like Brooklyn was the second biggest city in the country until it was absorbed by New York. And seeing that diversity is just really incredible.
Tara Pham - 56:58 - Exploring on bikes is the best. There’s a really good Hemingway quote about it, which I'll butcher, but he says something along the lines of “like in a car, you're just zooming over every kind of up and down in the road and you're not absorbing like on a bike all the nuances of the place.”
Spencer Wright - 57:23 - Yeah, yeah. Well, Tara, thank you so much for coming on.
Tara Pham - 57:27 - Thank you for having me.
Spencer Wright - 57:29 - For links to the things we talked about in this episode. Check out the show notes at the prepared.org/podcast. To learn more about Numina, visit numina.co. As always, thanks to the prepared.org supporters for making this show possible. My name is Spencer Wright. See you next week.
Tara Pham - 57:58 - Yeah. Cool. I look forward to hearing how this turns out. I feel like you have a lot to edit out.
Spencer Wright - 58:05 - We'll see.