Billionaires are a curious bunch. Many of them seem determined to solve problems which they think the rest of us have, even when we have barely raised a complaint. Take commuting. To a worker trying to get to the factory or office everyday, traffic delays and train cancellations may be the subject of grumbles over morning tea. If anybody is at fault, it is seen as the infrastructure operators for failing to invest enough to increase capacity.
That is not how billionaires see it. Rather than putting money into railroads, as their spiritual antecedents would have done, they view it as a data management issue. Improving journey-to-work times could be a doddle, if only all workers agreed to sign up to an information exchange that would optimise their commute.
LUUM is the latest such attempt, described as a “beachhead project” towards the creation of a wider personal information exchange by its creator, Canadian oil billionaire Kenneth Irving. Having made a fortune laying pipelines (and grown weary of family squabbles about the resulting riches), he has absorbed the hype around the supposed $3 trillion economic value of personal information and decided he has the answer.
What he actually has is one answer among over 250 - the number of different personal information exchanges said to exist by analysts Ctrl-Shift. And he is not even the first to see commuting as a good place to build a proof of concept.
Back in May 2000, I attended a conference hosted by NCR at which Michael Saylor, then president and CEO of MicroStrategy, identified the same issue. “In the US, 3 billion hours are lost every year through sitting in traffic jams. At US$100 per hour, that is US$300 billion of potential productivity. In a big city, there is an average of 35 per cent traffic congestion. Could you reduce that to 25 per cent? That might be the wrong question, because you could make it 1,000 times more efficient,” he said.
To Saylor, the solution was obvious - an intelligent network linking the transport system with a database of everybody’s journey times, routes and contact details. As traffic begins to build up on key bridges and junctions, the system would reconfigure journeys to use spare cycles in the traffic system.
Irving appears to have reached the same conclusion 14 years later. In that time, it seems likely that the scale of congestion will have increased, leading to an even higher productivity yield by any system that can solve it. The advantage Irving has it that we are on the cusp of an intelligent network being in place in the transport system through the much-heralded arrival of the Internet of Things.
That just leaves the issue of workers being willing to hand over their personal information. No doubt a mobile app will be the gateway to this massive data exchange. Back in 2000, I was not only sceptical, but scathing about Saylor’s vision, writing at the time that, “this is clearly a bold vision for the technology. After all, Mussolini only tried to get the trains to run on time.”
I still have the same concerns about such a project. It may well be that some (or all) workers will happily adopt an app that promises to save them five minutes every day. The trade-off will be that their employer (and LUUM) now knows even more about their work schedule, timeliness, productivity and even whether the reason they were late in was down to a delayed train or not. To me, the power that hands over is far too great for the benefit provided. But maybe that is why I am not a billionaire...