Sometimes, what drives industry innovation better than anything else is pure necessity, and a set of fresh eyes on a process that was seemingly tried and true.
“Before I began working as an urban planner, I used to think that we used very sophisticated means of designing transit systems – but it’s not,” Aaron Short, CEO and Founder of B-Line Analytics, said. While he was working in Toronto as a consultant and urban planner a few years ago, it became abundantly clear to him that human-reporting as a tool to understand transit mobility patterns, too frequently resulted in fragmented, unreliable data.
“We design based on what people tell us, but what people tell us isn’t always correct. The numbers are vastly different,” Short said. “A really good example of why this is dangerous is the Union-Pearson Express Train in Toronto.”
The controversial Metrolinx Express line that runs between Union Station and Pearson International Airport cost a whopping $456 million to build, $68 million per year to operate, and despite efforts to increase ridership through rate reductions and other promotions, it continues to run empty 90 per cent of the time.
“They realized – a year after opening it – that it will never pay off. This is why we’ve created B-Line, so we can get better, cheaper data in real time. We don’t ask people how they move, we look at how people actually move, revolutionizing transportation surveying,” he said, adding that if the Metrolinx team had a more comprehensive understanding of mobility patterns to and from those destinations, the costly project likely wouldn’t have been approved in the first place.
But the application is not exclusive to rapid transit solutions.
“B-Line is a mobility survey platform that helps organizations better understand mobility patterns and achieve environmental certifications, but really, ultimately, improve their bottoms lines, and help people within their organization get to work faster,” Short said.
Prospective clients include planners, engineers or property owners; they simply purchase the service, receive a project-specific code and ask building occupants to download the B-Line Analytics mobile app on their Apple or Android device. Users answer a few short questions, then go about their usual routine. Meanwhile, the application runs in the background of their device, collecting data about their commuting habits and environmental impact – whether you walk, bike, bus or drive – to and from the property in question. Then, the data is sent in real time to a server, and the information is analyzed.
That’s where Elias Zoghaib, the team’s data scientist, comes into play.
“With any industry that starts to collect data and actually measure something, the saying goes, ‘What gets measured is what gets accounted for.’ With B-Line, all we’re taking are measurements and giving you scientific results saying, ‘This is what this is doing and this is what it means,’” Zoghaib said.
“Before B-Line came along, it was very ad hoc, like measure something and it may work or it may not. But here, you’re getting data-driven insights and scientific principles are applied to an engineering problem that just wasn’t touched before.”
Zoghaib joined the team back in October 2018, just as the company was transitioning into residency here at Volta. He said he was excited to help create this solution because it was clear that it would require some very sophisticated technology.
“With our product, you’re getting very high-resolution, data-driven insights immediately, and those insights are for engineers or city planners who need this information for their large-scale projects,” Zoghaib said.
“It sounds deceptively simple because people think, ‘How come something like this didn’t exist before?’ But, there are a lot of complexities between your phone collecting information and relaying that to a server. But then, what do you do with those numbers? They are just numbers – and they each represent something different, so you have to create different features [to present that data accordingly].”
While B-Line would provide obvious benefits to municipalities for planning purposes, it is nearly impossible to get the population of an entire city to download an app to shape or re-shape development. So instead, B-Line shifted its focus and targeted an industry that is already embracing innovation in a big way.
“What we do is partner with organizations that actually need to collect this data,” Short said. Since it’s challenging to engage entire municipalities, there is still ample opportunity to survey smaller pockets within cities, such as university campuses or professional centres. Tracking mobility patterns within these communities can help inform development decisions, such as the installation of bike lanes, parking garages or other infrastructure.
“We focused on the green building industry – one, because I used to work in the industry and I know it really well and it’s also a really innovative industry.”
He explained that green building industries have real-time energy, real-time water and real-time waste data presented via dashboards that are strategically placed at the bottom of the building. This information is updated in real time, based on the systems in place.
There are significant financial benefits to individuals or companies who have their multi-unit residential or commercial properties certified green. For example, the property value, when certified, is generally 10 to 20 per cent above market cost, there is higher occupant satisfaction, and owners may be eligible for tax rebates or density bonuses, depending on their location. Additionally, because the overall property value is elevated, the landlord has the option to increase lease rates to generate more revenue.
However, part of that certification is contingent on reporting commuting patterns of building occupants; for example, if all occupants are travelled long distances to work in single occupancy vehicles, as opposed to walking, cycling or taking public transportation, that would play a role in the level of accreditation the property receives.
“But [to track] transportation, they use self-reporting systems for one week over a year, where they’ll send out a survey and they will have to manually input how they got there everyday for a week,” Short said. This data is typically acquired via an email survey or lobby blitz, even though open rates for emails are around 22 per cent, and you need at least 25 per cent of building occupants to complete the survey to receive your certification.
“With B-Line, we offer a better solution for this, because we have a one-time onboarding; people do one survey and then it just runs in the background of their phone for five days and they don’t have to do anything,” Short said. “Also, we can gamify this – turning it into a bike week or getting different floors to compete against each other. So it’s not a survey, but more of a game that they would look forward to … there’s engagement.”
As B-Line Analytics continues to optimize its application as a resident here at Volta, they have made some serious headway on product development and expanding their client base.
“We’re probably one of the newest residents at Volta – it’s where we started, and I just think from here, we’re well connected,” Short said, adding that, prior to becoming a Resident Company, he spent two-and-a-half years working on B-Line as a Network member in the Volta Co-working Space.
“There’s a very good community here in terms of resources for startups. In terms of accessing services, for example, I had an accounting problem and Grant Thornton is right here to help and I can just go talk to them. If you have a legal problem, we have a lawyer who can help. You also can just ask other founders who have been through it,” he added.
As for their ever-growing client-base, the B-Line Analytics team is excited to announce that they have just signed a three-year contract with the State University of New York College of Environmental Sciences and Forestry, one of the oldest and most distinguished American institutions, based in Syracuse. That contract will begin in April 2019.
B-Line Analytics has other significant announcements in the works and will be sharing those details in the coming weeks, so stay tuned.