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Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Bill Peduto skeptical of Uber’s plans to resume autonomous-vehicle testing

Posted By on Wed, May 23, 2018 at 7:10 PM

Uber autonomous Volvo - CP PHOTO BY REBECCA ADDISON
  • CP photo by Rebecca Addison
  • Uber autonomous Volvo
Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto was an early champion of Uber moving to Pittsburgh, and then of Uber testing autonomous vehicles here. When Uber balked at working with city officials on a federal transit-grant application in 2016, things started to go downhill.

Peduto has voiced much more criticism of Uber in the years since, and Uber has faced a series of issues unrelated to their relationship with Pittsburgh.

The latest issue involves Pittsburgh, though.

Uber announced May 23 the termination of its autonomous-vehicle testing in Arizona. An Uber driverless-car collided fatally with a pedestrian in Tempe in March, and Gov. Doug Ducey suspended autonomous-vehicle testing in that state. Since, Uber has suspended all autonomous testing.

The suspension includes Pittsburgh, but Uber stated in a news release that it's eyeing a return to Pittsburgh streets.

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Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Pittsburgh residents and advocates want city leaders to make sure Amazon would bring equitable development

Posted By on Wed, Apr 11, 2018 at 1:48 PM

Equitable-development advocates at a press conference in Downtown PIttsburgh - CP PHOTO BY RYAN DETO
  • CP photo by Ryan Deto
  • Equitable-development advocates at a press conference in Downtown PIttsburgh
The tech giant Amazon is headquartered in Seattle, and residents there know all too well the combative relationship Amazon has had with local officials. Geekwire, a tech-news website based in Seattle, set up shop in Pittsburgh for several weeks to report on Pittsburgh’s emerging tech scene. In a January story discussing Amazon’s potential in Pittsburgh with Mayor Bill Peduto, Geekwire noted that “Until recently, the company and the city of Seattle had largely stopped communicating, making it much more difficult to work together to address the Seattle region’s massive traffic problems, housing affordability crisis, and growing socioeconomic disparity.”

Earlier today, a group of about 15 Pittsburgh residents and housing and transit advocates held a press conference at the City-County Building Downtown. They called on city officials to take steps to ensure the Seattle dynamic doesn't play out in Pittsburgh, if the city were to land Amazon’s second headquarters.

A sign at the press conference read out five goals advocates wanted to see advanced: Accountability and transparency, quality local jobs, affordable housing, equitable transit, and community investment.

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Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Port Authority light-rail now has real-time tracking

Posted By on Wed, Nov 1, 2017 at 6:14 PM

Station Square light-rail stop in South Side - CP PHOTO BY JORDAN MILLER
  • CP photo by Jordan Miller
  • Station Square light-rail stop in South Side
Most public-transit riders agree that using a light-rail car is more enjoyable than taking the bus. But for years, buses in Port Authority of Allegheny County’s system have had an upper hand: They could be tracked with the authority’s TrueTime app. Users can follow the bus’ progress in real time on a map or a text-version on their smart phones.

But now, that same technology, through Port Authority’s TrueTime tracker, is being applied to the light-rail lines. The lines, commonly referred to as the “T," run from the North Side through Downtown and into the South Hills. Both red and blue lines will be tracked with the real-time technology.

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Friday, September 8, 2017

Pittsburgh probably isn’t in the running for Amazon’s new headquarters

Posted By on Fri, Sep 8, 2017 at 12:26 PM

  • CP photo by Jake Mysliwczyk
  • Downtown Pittsburgh
With the announcement that tech giant Amazon is searching for a second headquarters, and the promise of more than 50,000 high-paying jobs, Pittsburgh started to salivate. Several media personalities, politicians and ordinary PIttsburghers took to social media and practically begged Amazon to consider the Steel City. Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto announced that his staff was working with Allegheny County’s economic-development team on an application. Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald told TribLive that pitching Amazon is “right in our sweet spot.”

But economic factors and development realities in Pittsburgh indicate the region is far from Amazon’s sweet spot. Amazon’s list of preferences is intimidating. The tech company is first looking for a 500,000-square foot existing building that is close to a population center of more than 1 million people and near major highways. This will already be hard to find in Pittsburgh, as the city’s biggest building, the U.S. Steel Tower, only currently has about 300,000 square feet available.

With Amazon’s most preferred option most likely off the list, the second option would be a 100-acre pad-ready development site. Pittsburgh is filled with brownfields, old industrial sites the require clean up, and pad-ready sites are hard to come by. Especially ones that are “close to major arterial roads to provide optimal access,” as Amazon is demanding. Some have indicated the old Civic Arena site as a possibility, but that site is only 28 acres.

Additionally, the 500,000-square-foot site would just be the first part of Amazon’s development. Eventually, the company is looking to build a headquarters similar to its 8-million-square-foot Seattle headquarters.

The larger Almono site in Hazelwood has also been floated around as an option, but this site, while already in redevelopment, comes up short in Amazon’s requirement of having “direct access to rail, train, subway/metro, bus routes.” Currently, the Almono site does not connect to light-rail or even to one of the city’s three busways. Only three buses serve part or all of Almono — the 56, 57 and 58 — and they only arrive about every 20-30 minutes; hardly a vibrant public-transit hub. Not to mention the vision of Almono site is to house multiple companies, not one large one.

Chris Briem, an economist at University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Social and Urban Research, says this is out of scope for the Pittsburgh area. “Is there is site for them?” asks Briem. “Eight million square feet, I mean, that is like three U.S. Steel Towers. … Space has always been a terrible challenge for Pittsburgh.”

Besides the lack space available, Amazon is also looking for an extensive incentive package of tax-breaks, relocation grants, fee reductions and site preparation. Pittsburgh and Allegheny County can only offer limited incentives, like Tax Increment Financing and Local Economic Revitalization Tax Act District distinction, which provide city and county tax breaks for a few years.

However, most regions can offer these, so Briem says further incentives will have to come from the state. Briem adds it will be difficult to convince the state to allocate money for incentives when it is currently struggling to pass a budget. Also, Briem points out that Pennsylvania has a history of offering large state subsidies to companies and getting burned.

Pennsylvania gave $70 million in incentives to Volkswagen to build a plant in Westmoreland County. It opened in 1978 and by 1988, it was closed. But, Pittsburgh does have advantages other places can’t offer. The region has some of the lowest housing costs in the country, and Pittsburgh is emerging as a world leader in robotics and artificial-intelligent technologies.

However, Pittsburgh probably doesn't have a large enough workforce, filled with highly-educated workers, to satisfy Amazon. The company is requesting filling an estimated 50,000 positions. Bloomberg columnist Conor Sen paints grim prospects for Pittsburgh. “Consider a place like Pittsburgh,” Sen wrote in a Sept. 7 Bloomberg article. “Its metro area is 2.35 million people, and its labor force is 1.2 million. But the size of its labor force hasn't grown in 25 years. Even with the talent [Pittsburgh’s] well-respected universities produce, [why] is Amazon, a company that thinks of growth in terms of decades, going to locate a headquarters in a place where it might have to hire over 4 percent of the metro area's labor force with uncertainty over whether that labor force will ever grow?”

And, unfortunately, the final nail in Pittsburgh’s Amazon coffin might be the Pittsburgh International Airport. The airport still lacks the international access that a hub like Atlanta, Chicago and even Philadelphia can offer. It also lacks a direct flight to Seattle, home of Amazon.

Well-known urban planning expert Richard Florida corresponded with Pittsburgh City Paper via Twitter about Pittsburgh's chances at getting Amazon. Florida, a former Carnegie Mellon University professor and Pittsburgh fanboy, indicated our airport may not be up to task.

“I adore Pittsburgh, but I put it more of a sleeper category along with, say, Nashville,” wrote Florida in a tweet to CP. “Great assets but lacking in global airport access.”

Politicians like Peduto and Fitzgerald shouldn’t be faulted for trying, as Amazon moving to Pittsburgh would be a game-changer and would potentially turn around Pittsburgh’s shrinking population problem. And Florida hinted in a tweet that Amazon should consider cities that might struggle to offer incentives like Pittsburgh or Detroit, because of the good the company could do.

“On the Amazon HQII decision: they should take the highroad, turn down any form of incentives & create a model of inclusive prosperity,” tweeted Florida on Sept. 7.

But in a world where large companies like Amazon control so much influence, Florida indicated that those companies are likely to pass over Pittsburgh for cities that makes more sense economically, and those tend to be regions that are already thriving.

“Exactly right. [Amazon] will go to established places that are already talent magnets,” tweeted Florida on Sept. 7. “The world is getting spikier.”

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Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Bike-advocacy group survey says cyclists support driverless-car testing in Pittsburgh

Posted By on Wed, Mar 22, 2017 at 12:13 PM

  • Image courtesy of Bike Pittsburgh
Predicting how drivers are going to interact with cyclists on Pittsburgh roads is a fool’s game. Some drivers will slow down, provide the legally required four feet and pass cyclists without incident. Others will honk at cyclists and scream at them to get off the road, or even act negligent and crash into cyclists. It's all part of a normal commute for urban cyclists.

Because of this unpredictability, it's not all that surprising that Pittsburgh cyclists would support taking the human element out of driving, and data recently released by Bike Pittsburgh proves it. The bike- and pedestrian-advocacy organization released a survey on March 21, showing that only about 10 percent of Bike Pittsburgh members with and without experience sharing the road with driverless cars disapprove of Pittsburgh as a testing-ground for autonomous vehicles. Moreover, about 75 percent of Bike Pittsburgh members actually approve or somewhat approve of driverless-car testing in Pittsburgh. (Somewhat ironically, a recent survey of Americans with AAA coverage showed that 75 percent of drivers were afraid of fully autonomous vehicles.)

In September 2016, Uber debuted its semi-autonomous vehicles in a highly publicized event. Since then, semi-autonomous Volvo SUVs and Ford sedans have been navigating select Pittsburgh neighborhoods, with a driver ready to take over and a technician monitoring the driverless components.

The survey compiled responses from 321 Bike Pittsburgh members and about 800 non-members. About 40 percent of members said they have interacted with a driverless car either on bike or on foot (non-members have interacted with AVs slightly less on bike, but slightly more on foot).

“While our own personal experiences riding and walking alongside AVs have been mostly positive, we believe that the introduction of these vehicles to our streets deserves a larger conversation,” said Eric Boerer, BikePGH Advocacy Director, in a press release. “As far as we know, we are the first organization collecting these stories from bicyclists and pedestrians.”

Both members and non-members also said they felt safer when interacting with an autonomous vehicle, rather than with a car controlled by a driver, even if there were still some uneasiness. "People noted the lack of road rage and aggression toward them as opposed to human drivers," said the study. "However, many were not comfortable with the dehumanization of the interaction even if it ended up being safe."

But not all reports were positive, according to the press release. While most bike-riding respondents noted driverless cars gave four feet while passing, several people cited times AVs passed them only giving a few inches. Additionally, some walking survey respondents noted driverless cars didn't stop for them while waiting to cross the street, and one respondent witnessed an AV running a red light. (It should be noted that Recode recently published a story showing that while Pittsburgh has become the epicenter of semi-autonomous vehicle testing in the U.S., the driverless cars only travel an average of 0.8 miles before human drivers have to intervene.)

Regardless, respondents of the survey want Bike Pittsburgh to support AVs; 50 percent of members and 43 percent of non-members want the bike-advocacy organization to "actively support" autonomous vehicles. Only 3 percent of members and 7 percent of non-members want them to oppose AVs.

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Friday, July 15, 2016

Pittsburgh entrepreneur starts first Pokemon ride-hailing application

Posted By on Fri, Jul 15, 2016 at 5:39 PM

VIPGo creator Tom Larkin - PHOTO BY BILLY LUDT
  • Photo by Billy Ludt
  • VIPGo creator Tom Larkin

When local Tom Larkin posted on Facebook early Monday saying he would drive people around so they could play Pokemon Go, he didn’t think anybody would take him up on the offer.

“I was more or less joking,” says Larkin. “I didn’t think anyone would hit me up, but they did.”

After his inbox was flooded with messages for rides, he said he had two options: flourish or flounder. In the past several days, Larkin’s Facebook post has turned from an idea into a functioning Pokemon Go ride-hailing service called VIPGo.

The service is part of a Pittsburgh-based ride-hailing application called RideVIP. Clients can open the RideVIP application and queue up a driver for a Pokemon Go outing.

Larkin's Internet virality skyrocketed when news aggregator NowThis posted a video about Larkin’s ride-hailing idea. It garnered more than 6 million views in a matter of three days on Facebook.

“Now everyone knows who I am,” says Larkin. “I get called the ‘Pokemon Guy’ at the gas station.”

Pokemon Go is Nintendo’s second first-party title to appear on a mobile platform in the last year. The game uses a smartphone’s GPS with predesignated, real-world locations known as “Pokestops” or gyms. Players are required to physically visit these places to catch Pokemon, progress and grow levels.

Thursday evening, Larkin and his team set off from RideVIP’s headquarters in the North Hills to Mount Washington to pick up Jess, Lucci and Antania Hawkins. Antania Hawkins suffers from Dravet syndrome, a rare form of epilepsy that subjects her to daily seizures, leaving her wheelchair-bound. Larkin took the family around Mount Washington to catch some Pokemon, free of charge.

“The thought came from the fact that this game is so awesome, and there’s people that can’t play it and that sucks,” says Larkin. “I wanted to solve that, and that’s just kind of how my mind works. When I see a problem, I try to think of the most inventive solution for it. With this — there was a story that just came out today saying that Pokemon Go sections off mobility-challenged people, or people that are unable to get out of the house. I just want to prove that it’s not. We offer an alternative or a way to get out and play the game.”

“The first time I did this, I thought my inbox went crazy,” Larkin continues. But now he’s receiving higher volumes of messages from mobility-challenged people hoping to ride with VIPGo to play some Pokemon.

He says he'll continue to offer the opportunity to play Pokemon Go to individuals with varying abilities.

Since everything is moving so quickly, logistics are still being ironed out on VIPGo’s end. But Larkin has experience working with startups and says he has assisted in starting over 60 companies. VIPGo has received $27,000 in investments in under a week.

VIPGo drivers will be given an itinerary listing “hot spots” where players have reported a high volume of Pokemon, as well as Pokestops and gym locations. They are required to be versed in the game, and for VIPGo driving trainee Matt Vaughan, that won’t be a problem.

“I was immediately texting Tom to see if and when this was going to start,” says Vaughan. “It’s a very intriguing situation that they’ve put themselves in. As a friend of theirs and as an Uber driver, I said, ‘You know what? I’m going to support this and try my best to keep things moving.’”

Larkin says he aims to make VIPGo available nationwide eventually.

“I have to stick with this for a while,” says Larkin. “I’m the face of this.”

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Friday, May 20, 2016

On tour in Berlin, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra streams live back to Heinz Hall

Posted By on Fri, May 20, 2016 at 2:52 PM

Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra - PHOTO COURTESY OF MICHAEL SAHAIDA
  • Photo courtesy of Michael Sahaida
  • Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra

On Sunday, in the midst of a 14-date European tour, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra will capitalize on today's advances in digital infrastructure with a live-streamed performance from Berlin, and their first ever public simulcast at Heinz Hall and online at

“[The Berlin Philharmonic has] an incredible technical set-up there which is equivalent to the Met broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera,” says Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra President Melia Tourangeau. “So what we’re doing is basically taking advantage of that system and doing a live feed of the concert back to Heinz Hall in real time. It will be as if you’re sitting in Berlin watching the Pittsburgh Symphony.”

The concept for the Digital Music Hall, the Berlin Philharmonic’s in-house online concert streaming wing, started about 10 years ago. As music consumption shifted away from television, radio and CDs to the internet, the Berlin Philharmonic needed a new way to reach new audiences, even if the technology wasn’t quite there yet.

“At the beginning, HD streaming on the Internet was a tough challenge,” Tobias Möller, Director of Marketing and Communications at Berlin Phil Media, wrote in an email to City Paper. “But we are very happy that nowadays it has become very usual to enjoy audiovisual content online. However, you need to invest continuosly [sic] in all kinds of platforms because customers expect you to present your content on all media, from mobile devices to streaming devices and SmartTV.”

Digital streaming has become an integral tool for orchestras worldwide to reach new audiences as attendance and budgets have continued to shrink. The Detroit Symphony notably introduced their digital streaming capabilities in 2011, the first in the U.S. to do so. While the PSO hasn’t yet released their own digital streaming service — Berlin’s Digital Music Hall is a hired producer. Sunday’s performance will not stream on their channel — Sunday’s performance marks their first foray into live digital streaming from abroad.

Under Music Director Manfred Honeck, PSO’s Berlin performance will include pieces by Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky and Beethoven, with Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov. Back in Pittsburgh, the simulcast at Heinz Hall will be emceed by WQED’s Jim Cunningham.

“When I first came here, there were a lot of questions in the community of ‘what’s the value of international touring for this orchestra and what does it mean and why do we do it?’ And that type of thing. It’s an expensive venture,” says Tourangeau. “The purpose of this broadcast back to Heinz Hall is to say, ‘come and see what the world is actually seeing while we’re out and about.’”

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Wednesday, February 24, 2016

TEDxPittsburgh Issues Call for Speakers for May Event

Posted By on Wed, Feb 24, 2016 at 4:53 PM

TEDxPittsburgh, a locally organized series meant to spark discussion and change, is seeking nominations for speakers for its next event.

The event will be held Sun., May 22, at Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum, in Oakland. The theme is Activate: Ideas in Motion.

According to a press release, the event seeks “speakers who have taken a spark of inspiration and ignited others to change. Speakers that take service, innovation and community-building to a higher level. The people that have overcome challenges in their field activating a ripple effect that puts ideas into action, making life better for others.”

You can nominate a speaker here. Nominations are open until Mon., Feb. 29. (And yes, you are allowed to nominate yourself.)

For examples of speakers at last year’s TEDxPittsburgh, see here.

TED (for “Technology, Education, Design”) is a three-decade-old nonprofit group that holds two annual conferences featuring both internationally known and less well-known thinkers, entrepreneurs, authors, activists and scientists; the talks of 18 minutes or less are widely disseminated online. TED's slogan is “Ideas Worth Spreading.”

TEDx is a spin-off that press materials define as “a program of local, self-organized events that bring people together to share a TED-like experience.” Pittsburgh has already hosted several TEDx events.

TEDx events, according to the press release, “showcase the ideas, individuals and innovations that are redefining the region.” TEDx Pittsburgh promises “an eclectic mix of local talks and videos previously recorded at TED conferences with the community.”

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Uber expanding into Pittsburgh's Hazelwood neighborhood, some question benefits to locals

Posted By on Wed, Feb 24, 2016 at 2:22 PM

Hold on to your steering wheels everyone — the ride-hailing company Uber is expanding into Hazelwood to further test its driverless-car technology.

At a Feb. 23 meeting in front of more than 100 concerned citizens at the firefighter’s union hall in Hazelwood, the San Francisco-based company detailed some of its plans to lease and develop parts of the Almono site, the former LTV coke works site, which sits along the Monongahela River in Hazelwood.

Dan Beaven of Uber presented the company's plans to develop a section of the Almono site in Hazelwood. - PHOTO BY RYAN DETO
  • Photo by Ryan Deto
  • Dan Beaven of Uber presented the company's plans to develop a section of the Almono site in Hazelwood.
Uber will become the first tenant of the Almono site and will focus its development at the southern edge near Tecumseh Street. The Regional Industrial Development Corporation manages Almono and president Don Smith said Uber committing to the site is a “very special occasion.”

“The vision of Almono has been to create a world-class sustainable development that extends the commercial impact of the region’s major research centers,” said Smith in a statement on Uber’s website. “The partnership announced today is the first major step in realizing the vision.”

This 42-acre, Tecumseh section of the development will include “complete streets” infrastructure (roads, sidewalks, bike lanes) and will be used for testing self-driving cars for 3 to 5 years. After that, Uber is planning to vacate the space, and housing and parks are planned to go up in its place. Smith says the Uber development will create access to the site by next year, which can help facilitate other companies coming into Almono.

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Friday, February 12, 2016

App developed in Pittsburgh facilitates conversations with a "synthetic" Charles Darwin

Posted By on Fri, Feb 12, 2016 at 11:53 AM

Today is Charles Darwin's 207th birthday, and while there aren't any birthday bashes happening in Pittsburgh today, it's worth noting that local scientists have developed an app that facilitates a conversation with a "synthetic" Darwin.

"The fundamental principles of evolution are the way biology works, and a lot of people, particularly in the U.S., have a misunderstanding about evolution," says John Pollock, a biology professor at Duquesne University who came up with the idea for the app. "It's sad that some people believe there's another side to this; but evolution is like gravity, it is part of our universe."

The app — called Darwin Synthetic Interview — recently launched on iTunes, Google Play and the Amazon App Store and allows users to ask Darwin, actor Randy Kovitz, nearly 200 questions about his life and work. Pollock says he and his colleague and fellow Duquesne professor Dave Lampe crafted the scripted answers.

Darwin Synthetic Interview app allows users to ask questions about Charles Darwin on their mobile devices.
  • Darwin Synthetic Interview app allows users to ask questions about Charles Darwin on their mobile devices.

"We referenced everything from Darwin's writings and letters," Pollock says. However, there were a lot of things that Darwin didn't know about during his life but that his research applies to today.

"If you ask our Darwin about genetics, he says he doesn't know," says Pollock. There are also a lot of social science and theological questions that users may want to ask of Darwin as well, says Pollock.

To fill the gaps, users can ask modern experts — from American Civil Liberties Union lawyer Witold Walczak to the Vatican's chief scientist —  about how the foundations of Darwin's research applies to various aspects of life today. 

"That lets it fit into a very broad audience," Pollock says.

The Darwin Synthetic Interview was created as an interactive educational tool, on exhibit at the Carnegie Science Center, in 2009 by Pollock and his team, along with Carnegie Mellon University's Entertainment Technology Center, with funding from the National Institutes of Health Science Education Partnership Awards. The local company Simcoach Games adapted it into an app late last year. 

Though the full app is $9.99, a free "lite" version includes 24 of the most popular questions asked of Darwin.

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