SALT LAKE CITY — For most people, being stuck behind a red light at an intersection in which you are the only driver and waiting, for no apparent reason, for the cycle to come back around is an exercise that can lead to frustration and bewilderment.
For Mark Pittman, one such experience on a frosty winter night near the University of Utah a few years back presented a problem that he decided to solve — and it turned out to be the first steps toward the creation of a Salt Lake City tech company that is specializing in unraveling the when, where, how and why of human movement.
"I got stuck at a traffic light in 2014 leaving campus one night and didn’t understand why," Pittman said. "The next day I called a city traffic engineer and asked why and he was nice enough to invite me to meet with him. He told me over an hour and a half conversation that Utah has one of the best transportation systems in the nation, (the Utah Department of Transportation) is considered a pioneer in innovation, we have sensors on a lot of traffic lights and, essentially, you shouldn’t be complaining.
"And that wasn’t good enough for me."
Pittman's takeaway from that conversation, and subsequent research into transportation technology, was revelatory. He discovered that while many government planners and engineers were talking about a revolution in "smart technologies" that were going to fundamentally reshape, and improve our mobility challenges, smart transportation systems "weren't really that smart."
To that end, Pittman's company Blyncsy has innovated an approach for gathering large amounts of movement data that relies on seeing "electronic handshakes" emitted by mobile devices that are Wi-Fi or Bluetooth enabled, and assembling and analyzing that data to glean insights about how we, collectively, get from A to B and back again.
Sensors, mounted on utility poles or structures in their customers' jurisdiction areas, gather those signals and compile them in Blyncsy's database. Through a dashboard interface, clients are able to log in and see real-time volumes, movement patterns and trends. While primarily a transportation tool, Pittman said his company has clients that are also utilizing the data to optimize things like movements of large crowds in convention and event venues.
He noted that the Sundance Film Festival has able to learn, and plan for, how attendees to the annual Park City event move in and around the city during the two-week event.
In describing his business Pittman is quick to recognize that, thanks to numerous well-publicized, large-scale breaches of consumer data, people are suspicious of the concept of their travel habits being tracked and catalogued. However, he said Blyncsy cannot, and does not, connect the anonymous signature sent out by things like cellphones, laptops and tablet devices to their owners and the company takes the additional step of re-anonymizing that coded information. Further, Pittman said that that part of the data collection is never shared with clients and, thanks to Blyncsy's participation in helping to craft legislation that was passed by the Utah Legislature in 2016, law enforcement agencies, except in very limited circumstances, cannot demand access to that information.
"We don't collect information on people, we collect information on movement," Pittman said. "People should not see us a surveillance player, because we're not. Our data is used to stretch your tax dollars and to make it more useful to transportation agencies and to empower them to do their jobs better."
Park City City Manager Diane Foster said Blyncsy has become an invaluable tool in the ongoing work to plan for, accommodate and improve the effects of the tens of thousands of visitors who make Park City their temporary homes for ski adventures and the Sundance Film Festival.
"One of the things we're starting to hear from residents is that it's just too much, it's too many impacts," Foster said. "One day, in December of 2015, we experienced complete gridlock in four intersections. That's bad for residents, bad for visitors and bad for return business. People come here to relax and get away from things like gridlock, which they expect in New York or L.A., but not in our mountain community."
Foster said that she and her transportation team can now easily access and monitor what's happening with traffic flow and volume and they use that data, in combination with other data sets like hotel bookings and weather forecasts, to take mitigating actions to keep people moving, and happy.
Park City is also in the throes of adding transportation options in and around the city with a new bus rapid transit system, new bike share program and plans in place to add "micro-transit" (a sort-of ride hailing meets transit system) in an effort to continue to improve the ease, and fluidity, of getting around. Foster said the information Blyncsy provides will likely play an ever-increasing role in the city's toolbox for addressing mobility issues for residents and visitors.
"Blyncsy has had incredible utility for us now," Foster said. "It's become a vital part of what we do and we believe the potential is huge."
Huge is exactly how Pittman is thinking about potential applications for Blyncscy, too. As autonomous driving technology continues its march forward, the work Pittman's company is doing now to learn the how and why related to our use of vehicles, and other transportation modes, will provide the information groundwork for how a potentially enormous network of connected — and driverless — vehicles will make life, at least the transportation segment of it, easier for all.
"In 15-20 years no one will own a car anymore," Pittman said. "Everyone will Uber to work everyday and the single most difficult task for them will be how to schedule those cars. How to pick up the right people in your neighborhood at the right time to get them all to work by 8 a.m. and picked up by 5 p.m.
"Those are the kinds of problems we’re working to tackle."
Blaine Leonard, technology and innovation engineer for UDOT, highlighted that data is becoming an increasingly necessary and significant part of the job his agency is tasked with doing and concurred with Pittman that as driverless cars become a functional reality on state managed roadways, that data will become an even bigger factor.
"We're collecting an incredible amount of data on how traffic moves on our highways and actively working on building that information set to a much larger scale," Leonard said.
New sensor technology, similar to Blyncy's, is being implemented on UDOT-managed roadways and that information, compiled with other volume and flow data and third-party information the agency is able to access (like the ability to track vehicles equipped with OnStar and other vehicle-based navigation systems) will become increasingly relevant as automobile technology, like autonomous and semi-autonomous vehicles, become more the norm, according to Leonard.
Pittman's ability to anticipate, and address, future data needs is an attribute that Park City investor Dean Fogel saw early on in Blyncsy's incarnation and convinced him that the effort was worthy of his financial support.
"I was attracted to Mark Pittman because of his passion and desire to launch Blyncsy into an unknown market," Fogel said. "He’s demonstrated that he has the flexibility in his strategic thinking to know when to pivot to the right opportunities."
Fogel's angel investment, along with some very early start-up money earned in a competitive Get Seeded program at the University of Utah's Lassonde Institute, has led to nearly $3 million in financing for Blyncsy, mostly from Utah-based investors. Pittman said the company is nearing $1 million in annual revenues and is on a mission to secure working relationships with all 50 state transportation agencies, in addition to other clients.
Pittman is unequivocal in the need, both now and into the future, about the kind of work his company performs.
"The critical piece of our transportation future is data," Pittman said. "The future is more data driven than we even believe or want to believe."