Snowed in? This on-demand service will dig you out

Anybody who lives around Boston knows how important a good, reliable snow removal service is. Lately such a service has been hard to find, since the area’s been hit with more than 72 inches of snow in 30 days. (And it’s snowing again as I type this. Yikes.)

Routing snow plows so that they can concentrate their efforts in a smaller area  and help more customers faster (plus make more money) is a problem that Boston-based Plowme.com is attacking. And, based on reviews from some [company]Facebook[/company] friends who used it recently, it’s doing a pretty great job.

Founder and CEO Yeh Diab disputes the notion that this is “Uber for snowplows”  because the focus is more on providers than consumers. Plowme.com wants to help get the most from (and give the most benefit to) drivers based on the routes they already know. Face it, if a driver can plow out 4 driveways within a one-mile radius, it’s a lot more efficient for everyone than clearing a driveway in Newton and driving 10 miles (which can take an hour or more currently) to Natick.

Delivery routes may be profoundly unsexy but are also incredibly important to optimize service delivery. And there are ways to build dense, efficient routes, to cut down excess unnecessary driving that amounts to downtime, Diab said in an interview.

We’re not Uber

Uber is all about real-time demand, whereas Plowme.com “thinks in future time,” Diab said. “Who’s coming here [during the storm] tomorrow.”Plowme.com also provides a way for existing businesses — mostly lawn care or landscaping providers who also do snow removal in their off-season to parlay the system even trade routes with other contractors if that’s optimal, he said.

boston blizzard

The current website, an application built with Rails and PostgreSQL atop Heroku, lets a potential customer key in her zip code. If there is a provider in the area, she can then book the service after supplying a few key metrics like how many cars fit in the driveway.

“If we have no coverage, the zip code is greyed out,” Diab said. “You have to be disciplined, focused on getting people out the day of the storm. It’s a hard logistics problem but it’s better to say sorry at the beginning than after the fact.”

Currently Plowme.com, founded three years ago as an offshoot of Diab’s other company ServiceRoute, has about 300 contractors — all of whom check in at least once a month. It’s handled more than 1,000 calls in the past few weeks.

Right now drivers can check a web-based application on their phones for bookings. Plans call for native apps that will include Uber-like tracking. Right now Plowme.com is helping to create interactions to increase delivery density. Other entrepreneurs including Routific and foxtrot.io  are working to optimize routes after those interactions are set up, Diab added.

Will calling Boston “CEO City” make it so?

John Cullinane, who co-founded what many characterize as the industry’s first standalone software startup back in 1968 near Boston, thinks the city could do itself a favor in attracting corporate headquarters if it markets itself as “CEO City.”

Cullinane, the exec behind Cullinet, posed that suggestion in BetaBoston last week and the idea is intriguing given the greater Boston area’s inferiority complex vis-a-vis Silicon Valley and San Francisco when it comes to launching successful tech startups and keeping them around as they grow. Most famous example: Mark Zuckerberg left Harvard to found [company]Facebook[/company] in the Valley. Oh, the ignominy.

free snow 2While Boston-Cambridge remains home to a good number of tech and biotech startups, it’s seen as pretty much a feeder system for gigantic tech companies based somewhere else. [company]IBM[/company], Facebook, [company]Google[/company], [company]Microsoft[/company] have all bought local companies and in some cases leave them here, but as satellite offices.

Even such local non-tech corporate stalwarts like Gillette and John Hancock Insurance, which were once headquartered here, are now cogs of bigger companies based elsewhere. Gillette is now part of Cincinnati-based Proctor & Gamble and Hancock, is now owned by  Manulife, a Canadian company for goodness sake!

This is galling to a certain faction of homers.

To fix that, Cullinane suggested that Boston Mayor Marty Walsh woo CEOs with tales of Boston as an attractive, livable city with great transportation; world-class universities and research institutes; great hospitals, the usual pitch really. But if Boston is able to win over a couple of CEOs, there will be a network effect because, he said, CEOs like to hobnob with other CEOs whether they’re with startups or huge companies. The fact that new governor Charlie Baker, is a former CEO of Harvard Pilgrim Healthcare,  is probably a boon in this scheme of things.

Per BetaBoston:

[Cullinane] added that Boston is also strategically located, with an increasing number of direct international flights out of Logan. “When you put this message to a CEO that is thinking about where to locate headquarters, these things could tip things,” Cullinane said.

Hey, he’s got an idea here I guess, but this is probably not the week to start pitching it given the 62 inches of snow that have piled up and pretty much shut down all that great transportation. Just saying.

Uber starts releasing transit data to cities

Following a conflict with New York City over its ride data, Uber has begun giving some of its transit information to Boston in a pilot program. It’s using ZIP codes as the basis for the place-based information, and it’s anonymizing some of the details to protect riders and passengers.

In a blog post, Uber suggested that Boston would serve as a trial for the program before the company expands it to other cities. Uber isn’t handing over any pricing details, but it is giving cities information on every ride’s drop off and pick up ZIP codes, the time of day each occurred, distance and time of each trip, and “technical support” for combing through the data.

As Gigaom’s Derrick Harris noted in a previous post on the company’s data strategy, “Uber certainly appears to see data as an important arrow in its quiver as it fights for legitimacy in cities around the world.” In the past it has hand-selected which data sets to release, publishing a blog post to prove it wasn’t discriminating against low-income riders in Chicago and months later publishing information to argue that Boston should extend its public transit hours.

However, this is the first time the company has agreed to give ongoing data information on key topics to a city government.

New York will be glad to hear it given that its Taxi & Limousine Tribunal recently suspended five out of six Uber bases for not handing over trip data. Uber is still in negotiations with NYC’s Taxi and Limousine Commission over it. Local governments want the information because it helps them plan everything from public transit routes to traffic patterns to emergency response protocols. It also allows regulators to ensure that transportation companies aren’t discriminating against people in certain neighborhoods.

Until now, Uber had resisted giving its data away, citing concerns about trade secrets. Trade secrets could mean a lot of things, but as some have pointed out, Uber was probably worried, in part, about local governments using Uber data to help taxis work more efficiently.

Bostonians can pay their parking tickets with a mobile app

Mobile payments technology has made it easier to purchase everything from movies to furniture with the tap of a mobile app. Now it’s making a particularly distasteful transaction just a bit more convenient: paying your parking tickets.

The city of Boston is partnering with local startup TicketZen to offer a mobile option to pay parking fines as soon as you get them. Every Boston-issued ticket will come with a barcode that can be scanned into TicketZen’s iOS or Android app via a smartphone’s camera. The app will then pull up a digital copy of the ticket, which you can pay by entering your credit card details. Even if the ticket was just stuck under your wiper blade and hasn’t yet made it into the city’s servers, TicketZen can accept payment details immediately and then process the transaction when the city records are updated.

New York City is weighing it’s own parking fines app which could accept anything from Apple Pay to PayPal to cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin. But while NYC is still in the information gathering stage, Boston’s mobile payments setup is already live, albeit without the plethora of financial options. In fact it just completed a three-month pilot with TicketZen in which 5,000 people paid 7,000 tickets using the app.

Boston is now taking the program out of pilot and offering TicketZen as option on all parking tickets for the next year. TicketZen is waiving its normal processing fees as well, though scofflaws are still on the hook for the city’s credit card processing fees.

TicketZen isn’t just available to Bostonian either. Its ticket payment service is actually available in NYC as well as in San Francisco, Los Angles, Chicago and Washington, D.C. as an independent service (though on iPhone only). The close partnership with Boston, though, makes TicketZen more or a less an official fine collector for Beantown as directions to its mobile app are printed at the bottom of every citation.

It’s no Silicon Valley, but Boston’s getting perkier for startups

The greater Boston-Cambridge area has no problem attracting bright young people from all over the world to its colleges and universities. But it has well-documented issues keeping the best-and-brightest local when they graduate (or don’t graduate as was the case for [company]Facebook[/company] founder Mark Zuckerberg and [company]Microsoft[/company] co-founder Bill Gates).

But things are looking up, according to local tech execs and venture capitalists. Witness the Innovation District, a shiny new tech hub that blossomed under the late and lamented Boston Mayor Thomas Menino. Located in what was once a sea of parking lots on prime harborside real estate, the area has exploded for tech startups in the past year. District Hall offers wi-fi and desks and meeting rooms for local entrepreneurs — and wandering journalists — who need a place to set up shop for a few hours. There’s more on Boston’s spot in the tech universe in this  Re/Code special report.

Boston Seaport District's District Hall

Boston Seaport District’s District Hall

The importance of mass transit

Expanded MBTA hours — the last trip of the day for key subway lines is now 1 a.m. on weeknights and 3:00 a.m. on Friday and Saturdays. The last trip used to be at 12:30 a.m. (Expanded hours are still in the experimental phase however, The Massachusetts Department of Transportation plans to revisit the issue later this year.)

Mass transit is a big issue for tech startups both in the Innovation District where many of the aforementioned parking lots are now construction sites — and Cambridge’s traffic-clogged Kendall Square.

Hubway, the short-term bike rental service also got shout-outs from local entrepreneurs who know that many young employees want to live within walking or mass transit reach of their jobs.

Colin Piepgras, VP of engineering and co-founder of Digital Lumens, is a big booster of the district, where his company now resides. The fact that the MBTA’s Silver, Red, and Orange Lines are all accessible as are North and South Stations “all glued together by Hubway” is a huge draw, he said via email. That means “easy access for employees regardless of where they’re coming from,” he said via email. Bonus points for the water taxis to Logan Airport — just across the harbor — and the commuter ferry to the Aquarium, in downtown Boston.

[company]LogMeIn[/company] CMO W. Sean Ford agreed, saying via email, that the Innovation District has not only transformed the city’s physical landscape but made it much easier for tech companies “to attract the world’s best and brightest talent.”

Chris Lynch, partner with [company]Atlas Ventures[/company] agreed with all of the above and also cited new facilities like Blade — which co-founds consumer technology startups and Hack/Reduce near Kendall Square, which promotes big data-focused talent and projects.

 

Hack/Reduce building.

Hack/Reduce building.

Some big IPOs help

A couple execs pointed to several recent successful IPOs over the past year — Wayfair, Care.com, and HubSpot — as proof that Boston-Cambridge can nurture startups from infancy to adulthood and not necessarily end up as acquisition bait for larger companies.

“The amazing thing about these IPOs is that they are not classic technology infrastructure companies — long Boston’s meat and potatoes,” said Andy Palmer, founder of KoaLabs, a co-working space in Harvard Square.

As [company]TripAdvisor[/company] (of Newton Mass.) and [company]Kayak[/company] (based in Norwalk, Conn. but which runs technology out of Concord, Mass.) already showed in the travel segment, “building consumer internet companies in Boston is not only possible, it’s also desirable due to the high quantity of engineering talent and the loyalty of that talent,” Palmer added.

Drafting off the big boys

Some locals decry the fact that promising local startups end up in the clutches of “outside” tech powers– [company]IBM[/company], [company]Oracle[/company], [company]Facebook[/company], [company]Google[/company][company] — have all purchased area startups. Others say this is a good thing. Ditto the fact that the computing giants from Silicon Valley — Google, Facebook, and VMware as well as Microsoft and Amazon — all have big facilities in Cambridge.

Palmer said Google’s new Cambridge office is particularly important as it makes Cambridge a core hub for startups globally — the internet search kingpin is pushing the Google Cloud Platform as a foundation for startups — taking on [company]Amazon[/company] Web Services.

Fighting non-competes

Massachusetts laws surrounding non-compete agreements —backed by EMC and some other local IT giants — still hinders startup activities in the state. Palmer clearly feels strongly about the laws which, in his view “radically constrained innovation and limited the expansion of our starup ecosystem relative to NYC or California.”

Silver lining is that the most attractive job candidates refuse to sign these documents. And that, he said, will force big companies to change — or go without the best people.

Summing up,the Innovation District and Kendall Square are able to lure top startups but may become a victim of their own success as rents skyrocket. If the region really wants to rival the San Francisco-East Bay-Silicon Valley tech nexus, there needs to be expansion beyond those two hot spots. That’s why burgeoning efforts to promote Roxbury’s Dudley Square and Allston-Brighton and Watertown west of the city as tech venues are key.

But the bigger point here is that the hub doesn’t really have to be another Silicon Valley to succeed, it just needs to get more hospitable to tech startups.

Comcast is getting ready to launch its cloud DVR in Boston

http://www.fiercecable.com/story/comcast-prepares-launch-network-dvr-boston/2014-01-29

Comcast (s CMCSK)  is preparing to launch its cloud DVR in the Boston market “very soon,” according to a FierceCable report. The company’s SVP and GM of Video Services Matt Strauss told FierceCbale that the new network DVR, which will store customers’ recordings in the cloud, will be rolled out market by market this year. The cloud DVR will only be made available to subscribers who also have Comcast’s new X1 set-top box, which was also rolled out in Boston first.