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Episode 145 Stacey Matlen

From mobility entrepreneur to city official to now non-profit executive, Stacey Matlen’s transportation journey now includes helping entrepreneurs navigate complex procurements in order to solve the biggest challenges facing public transit at the Partnership for New York City.  


Cohen: Josh Cohen

Matlen: Stacey Matlen

Cohen: There are so many potential solutions out there to the numerous challenges facing public transit.  But what if we’re not taking advantage of all the brainpower available to solve those problems?  Our guest today, Stacey Matlen of the Partnership for New York City, will tell you what she’s doing to remedy this,  coming up now on The Movement podcast.  Let’s go.

F: The freedom of movement to access jobs, education, and social activities is a fundamental human right, but that freedom is not distributed equitably, undermining our ability to create vibrant and sustainable communities for all.  Welcome to The Movement, where we talk with the leaders who are reshaping their communities with brave decisions, inspired advocacy, and a stubborn unwillingness to accept the status quo, all in an effort to inspire the next generation of leaders.  Here’s your host, Josh Cohen.  

Cohen: All right.  Our guest today is Stacey Matlen, the director of innovation programs at Partnership for NYC.  I met Stacey a few years ago, when she was working in the Office of Mobility Innovation for the City of Detroit with Mark de la Vergne.  Welcome to The Movement, Stacey.

Matlen: Thank you so much for having me.  It’s such an honor and pleasure to chat with you and be on this podcast.

Cohen: I love it.  So, Stacey and I have known each other a few years, have run into each other at various conferences and happy hours and coffees and such over the years.  So, great person to chat with, and she recently got a new job, and I had reached out to learn more about that, and I said, “You know, we really ought to share some of what you’ve been working on, on the podcast.”  And so that led us here.  So let’s start here, Stacey.  You’ve got such a cool background.  You’ve done some interesting stuff in the mobility space.  Why don’t you share your mobility story and kind of how you got to where you are?  And I think that will give us some really good things to chat through.

Matlen: Sure, yeah.  I would be happy to.  So, I think, like many people in the transportation space, I didn’t go into the field knowing I am passionate about transportation.  I came at it from a public health perspective, where I was getting my master’s at U of M in public health, and I was focused on the social determinants of health and trying to understand the issue around access to healthy food, specifically in Detroit.

And in grad school I was in an innovation program that guides you through the human-centered design process and, you know, guides you to think about how to solve really complex public health challenges.  And part of that process is just start by talking to as many people as possible to try to understand the issue from many different perspectives.  So we interviewed a lot of different people, specifically in Detroit, around the issues around food access, and found transportation was a theme that just kept coming up.  This was back in 2014, back when Uber and Lyft had really started to gain more momentum, but they were more on the coasts, and they were seen as a high-tech solution for higher-income folks, White folks who really had means, disposable income.  And it was more of a luxury instead of a real solving problems for people, lower-income folks who needed to get to work or jobs or education or anything else.

And so we thought, “Well, you know, this is still really interesting technology, and it’s a really interesting tool, and what if we could help subsidize this cost and have actually grocery stores subsidize the cost of a rideshare ride to help get people to their stores that therefore increases their business and also solves a real problem of getting people to and from grocery stores if there’s—if public transit is not super strong in that area or if there’s not a great route for that specific person to get to and from the grocery store.”  So—

Cohen: So you’re doing this while you’re in grad school?  Like you’re—

Matlen: Yes.  [LAUGHS]

Cohen: You’re, like, taking classes, and you’re, like, trying to solve one of the larger mobility problems, which is like, you know, how do we get access to food for folks who need it?

Matlen: Yeah.  I mean, and it was—

Cohen: Okay, good.  Just want to make sure we’re clear.

Matlen: [LAUGHS] And, I mean, it was an amazing opportunity because it was really like the capstone and the highlight of my graduate education, was to be able to go out and talk to people, understand the challenges, and start by solving it.  And you don’t start by solving that by just, you know, taking—going to Uber from day one and being like, “Here’s what we have to do.”  It’s you start small.  You start by testing iterative hypotheses and seeing, you know, like, one, would people in Detroit who are going to the grocery store, would they trust getting into a car with strangers; two, would they pay for a ride; three, would they use any sort of technology?  If so, what technology; what technology would they trust?  And so it was definitely a series of iterative pilots to understand how to tackle this larger issue, and ultimately found that, you know, transportation is not just a challenge for access to food, but it’s also a challenge for jobs and education and healthcare and so many other social determinants of health.  And that’s where I really wanted to pivot my career, not just focus—I mean, public health is always my background and my passion, but having more of a specific mobility lens, understanding that mobility really is the through point in that thread that connects people to all of the social determinants of health, and if you don’t have access to transportation, then you don’t have access to any other health-enabling activity to live your best life.

And so that is the turning point for me, and when I had the opportunity to work for the City of Detroit in the Mayor’s Office and work with Mark de la Vergne in the Office of Mobility Innovation to essentially continue the work that the pilot was focused on, on getting people to where they needed to go and enabling their health and their daily lives, but just doing that within the public sector, that was an amazing opportunity for me.  So that’s why I ended up switching to the public sector.  And because, at the end of the day, you know, this is a really complex problem, and as a startup with limited funds trying to solve this really hard problem, that we just didn’t have sustainability.  We didn’t have buy-in.  We need to build a larger ecosystem.  And what better tool to build this big ecosystem and to build all these—to get stakeholders together to solve a complex problem than government?  It’s the best—you know, that’s one of the best tools that government has in its toolbox, is the ability to get different stakeholders around the table to solve a complex problem.  And funding, potentially, because at the end of the day, the point of government, unlike the private sector, is to really focus on solving equity and solving needs of the most vulnerable.  And so, since government has that mandate, that should be, and should be the role of government.

So, yeah, ended up—this is a long way of telling my story.  But ended up going—

Cohen: Yeah, no, you’re good.

Matlen: [LAUGHS]—to the Mayor’s Office, and tried to focus on how to use technologies to get people to jobs, specifically, and other health-enabling activities, and was—really loved the work, was still able to be on the ground and talk to people, understand their challenges, and come and cocreate a solution with them.

I think the interesting thing about government that I didn’t know before joining was how while there’s a lot of flexibility sometimes in the way that you can approach a problem, the actually being able to solve the problem can be a little bit more challenging.  So, for example, even if you have some grant funding to, you know, fund a pilot, depending on where that grant funding comes from, it can sometimes take a really long time to get all the pieces in place and procure a service.  And we found it took us, I think, a year and a half to get a pilot operational to solve a problem and to conduct a pilot.  And that, for me, was a really frustrating experience.  And really, to be fair, it’s not just Detroit that has that challenge, or it’s not just my experience.

Cohen: Yeah, it’s everywhere.

Matlen: I’ve talked to many, many public sector folks who run pilots, and it takes them two years to get something off the ground.  And at that rate, you’re really not solving resident needs, because if you’re trying to solve a very specific problem, starting small, trying to see what sticks and then scale, if it takes you two years to get something operational, it’s just like—does that problem still exist?  Are the people still there?  Are you still building those relationships?  You know, a lot of things can change in two years.

And so I was really frustrated with this broader problem around procurement and how government can rapidly respond to resident needs, and was looking at third-party models around the country to understand, you know, could there be a different way, could there be a third-party nonprofit that can help incubate innovation and help conduct pilots where it’s not necessarily—you don’t even need to spend millions of dollars; you can do something really small and test out an idea and then bring in a larger procurement that might take more time once you’ve proven the model.

And actually came across the Transit Tech Lab as a really interesting model.  Actually, the Forbes 30 Under 30 conference, I heard Natalia, who is now my boss, I heard her speak at the conference, and I was amazed at the model, and I was doing a lot of exploration.  And so always had that in the back of my mind, of like, “Wow, this is a really interesting organization.”  And then in this past year, saw that they were looking for a new director and was able to get this opportunity.  And so now I’m able to understand how this third-party nonprofit model could be used to help government, essentially, do what they do best, which is solve these really complex social challenges and bring different stakeholders together, by also then bringing in the startups and new technologies and demonstrating how to do iterative tests to understand does this new technology work in this specific application, and if so, let’s scale it across our system.

And the Transit Tech Lab, it’s been around since 2018, and it’s been able to demonstrate, through a series of challenges and a series of different pilots that we’ve conducted, that, yeah, actually, as long as you get executive buy-in from the top and if you have strong goals and KPIs and project managers who feel empowered, you actually can understand how these new technologies could be applied and scaled across an entire system.  So it’s been really fascinating for me to be in this role, to see how this sort of model is—can be successful and actually could be leveraged not just in New York City but in other places around the country.

Cohen: Yeah, well, I want to dig into that a little bit more here in a little bit.  From the standpoint of your research when you were kind of trying to understand these different models, I mean, are there other good models that you’ve seen about how governments have been able to integrate in kind of technology in an iterative way that’s, you know, maybe more timely, I guess?  I guess that’s maybe trying to get at some of those challenges there.  You know, obviously, you found one here in New York City.  Are there others that really have jumped out to you as you’ve done your research?

Matlen: Yeah, I think, other similar models.  There’s the Smart Columbus partnership—

Cohen: Oh yeah.

Matlen: —in Columbus.  Jordan Davis has been running that, and they—that’s an interesting model because they were formed really to—for that application of the Smart Cities, the $50 million from the federal government.

Cohen: Yeah.

Matlen: And then in order for—they were successful because they were able to also leverage a lot of private foundation funding, and they created this hybrid public-private partnership to solve this complex challenge.  So they’re a really good example as well.  Also, Urban Movement Labs, which came out of—in L.A., coming out of the Mayor’s Office in L.A. and then spun out of this separate nonprofit to help incubate both the private sector and also with the heart of public sector goals.  So I do think there is this model if you can, one, make sure that you’re always focused on public sector goals and focusing on equity and making sure that you understand your mandate and the clear challenge that you’re trying to solve; and then, two, being able to work with private sector companies who also stand behind those same goals, and leveraging their expertise and their funding and ability to come together and all be aligned, this broader goal.

I do think it helps to have a nonprofit framework, so you’re not as restricted with some of the broader public sector requirements that sometimes can be challenging in terms of procurement.  And so if you have some philanthropic or foundation dollars, I think, that’s a great way to get started.  And even if you have some private sector dollars, that’s great as well. 

Cohen: You know, I think that’s—slightly different project and slightly different goals, but I think that’s similar to how the Move PGH project in Pittsburgh kind of oriented, from what I understood from talking to the various folks when I was there a couple months ago, where, you know, I think a lot of the accounting and a lot of the—a lot of that work, some of the staff, are all being run through a third-party nonprofit.  And they’re also handling some of the funding as well, just to kind of help manage some of that.  Again, I think for some of those flexibility reasons that you mentioned before that the public sector just doesn’t have that the nonprofit—it makes it a little bit easier.  So maybe to put a finer point on that, how do you kind of make sure that the public good is still met there, right?  Because, you know, certainly—

Matlen: Yeah.

Cohen: There—you know, I mean, there’ve been some bad actors as it relates to the private sector as far as stepping on some toes of the cities and, you know, so forth.  How do you ensure that the public good is still met there?

Matlen: Yeah.  So I can tell you how at least the Transit Tech Lab works and how we ensure that we always start with the public sector goals in mind.  And so, to back up a little bit, the Transit Tech Lab is a program of a larger public-private partnership between the MTA and the Partnership for New York City.  And the Partnership for New York City is a nonprofit that represents 300-plus large employers across the city of New York, representing over 1 million employees in the city of New York, and the goal is to leverage private sector resources to meet public sector goals.

And so the Partnership for New York City and the MTA came together back in 2018, back when there was a state of emergency for the MTA due to subway delays, and there was just a lot of challenge that—with the MTA.  The governor made this executive call for the private sector to step in.  And so he created this public-private partnership and held a meeting to understand strategic priorities of what the private sector could do to help influence change and improve public sector goals.

And there’s a series of strategic goals that came out of that, and one of the programs that came out of that initial meeting was the Transit Tech Lab, which is a reoccurring program.  It’s an annual program that works with the MTA and has expanded.  In the first year it was just with the MTA and now has expanded to other regional New York transit agencies, from Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, to New Jersey Transit, to NYCDOT and others.  Essentially, working with each of these organizations and helping define a key challenge.  

And I think the key point there is, we listen to as many people as possible across the organizations to make sure that we fully understand the context of the challenge, but we also make sure that whatever challenge we select is aligned with top leadership priorities.  Because in order for any sort of challenge to be successful, you have to make sure it’s a priority of the most senior leadership.

From there, we broadly share this challenge globally, and we pitch startups from around the world to come and apply, to demonstrate how their technology can solve this specific challenge.

Cohen: So you don’t have to be based in New York to participate?

Matlen: No.

Cohen: Okay, interesting.

Matlen: You don’t have to be based in New York.  It’s anybody can apply, as long as you’re a startup, and you can demonstrate how you can solve this challenge.  And we typically try to have the challenges be very broad in nature, to allow flexibility and allow, you know, however you’re interpreting that challenge to come at it.

So, for example, we had a COVID-19 challenge this past year, and the question was, how can we make transit safer, healthier, and more responsive amidst the COVID-19 pandemic?  And in response, we received a lot of applications from anything from cleaning solutions to AI solutions to help predict journey times, and to make transit more efficient, to micromobility options.  So we really try to enable as a wide array of startups to apply, to demonstrate how they think they can solve this particular challenge.

And then the next step is the transit agencies evaluate those applications, and they decide what’s the most interesting to them.  There’s a demo day where they can kind of get a better sense of what the technologies are, but at the end of the day, there’s an evaluation committee, and the transit agencies themselves decide, if any, if at all, which startups they would like to select to move forward with a proof of concept.

And so the next stage is a six-to-eight-week proof of concept where it’s really a test to see does the technology work, does the startup do what they say they do, does it work in the context of New York, you know, what does this look like, how does this feel, is this something that we would be interested in learning more about.  And so it’s a very basic proof of concept, and that’s done at no cost to the transit agency.

And then, after that proof of concept, if the transit agency likes what they see, they can select all the startups or none of the startups, however many of the startups they would like from that proof-of-concept cohort, to then participate in a year-long pilot.  And that’s another iterative approach to test this broader hypothesis of, you know, does this add significant value to the transit agency, does this solve the challenge that we, you know, put out there from the start, and is this something that we could scale across the entire system.  And we have very clear goals, metrics, and KPIs to track against that.

And we found that as long as the startup is solving a challenge that executives have already stated is a key challenge, and as long as there’s project managers who feel empowered to really understand and vouch for this specific company, if they’re successful and if the goals and KPIs are able to achieve what was intended, then actually we’ve seen quite a few adoptions of technologies that have been able to come from pilot to scaling across an entire system, which is pretty incredible because, I think, one of the biggest, like—one of the biggest things that I had in the past when working in the private—or in the public sector was around, you know, can technology actually ever be incorporated in government; it’s really challenging to scale new technologies.

Cohen: Yeah.

Matlen: But we’ve actually seen quite a few success stories, and it’s—I think it’s really telling of the power of this sort of model where you have full transparency and you’re starting with the challenge, you’re starting with the public sector being involved and top leadership being involved at every step of the way.  And then also you’re giving startups an opportunity to work with the public sector, which a lot of startups, they would never, you know, want to or have the opportunity to work with a big public transit agency from the start because they’re too small of they don’t have the resources or RFPs.  You know, it’s a very long sales cycle.  So, typically, you know, it’s a very small vendor pool that apply to these RFPs.  And so also it helps increase the vendor pool for transit agencies.  So it’s really an incredible—

Cohen: I imagine diversity, too, right?

Matlen: Yes, yes.  Definitely.

Cohen: So, like, diversity, like female-owned businesses, minority-owned businesses.

Matlen: Yep.

Cohen: You know, it’s like there’s a way to kind of—there’s like an onramp into the ecosystem that maybe there hadn’t been before.  Because, look, I’ve, you know, been a part of a small company before in the transportation space.  We’re bigger now, but back when we were started, you know, you try to apply to some of these organizations that are not even as big as MTA—

Matlen: Yeah.

Cohen: —you know, for an RFP or a tender, and it’s like, you know, you have to give out your unborn child, like, as a collateral or something, you know?  Or, you know, the insurance requirements. 

Matlen: Yeah.

Cohen: Or whatever.  And it’s like that’s—it’s not—that’s not going to work, right?  You’re only going to get the ginormous companies that have already done this for hundreds of years—

Matlen: Exactly.

Cohen: —to be the ones who respond.  So how are you managing that kind of part of it?

Matlen: So there’s a couple of things.  One, at least with the MTA, we have worked out—like, we went through terms and conditions and created a special contract and terms and conditions sheet specifically for the Transit Tech Lab, where we already went through and were like, “Well, this seems a little excessive for a pilot.  This seems a little bit much.”  And so whittling it down just to the barebones of what the MTA really needs in order for—to have a contract in place.  And so we were able to work with their legal and procurement teams from the start to help create that.

The other thing is that, regardless, I mean, you’re signing a contract, and contract negotiations can take a while, and they can be—especially when it comes to indemnity clauses.  There are all these other things that are—can be really complicated and really scary, especially for a startup to sign onto.  It helps that we, as a neutral third party, we can, you know, based off experience that we’ve seen in previous contract negotiations, we can help guide them and let them know, you know, “Here’s what it’s meant in the past, and here’s what we’ve seen.”

And so, I think, it helps to have a mediator be in the room to let them know, like, “You know, like, the risk is actually not that high, and here’s what it helps.  I mean, talk to your lawyers.  We’re not going to provide legal advice, but here’s what we’ve seen in the past, and this is what’s—how it’s worked.”  And so I think that’s also been helpful as well.

But yeah, I mean, it definitely—even, it will still take a bit of time to negotiate a contract, regardless, because [LAUGHS] I feel like the contracts always take longer than you ever anticipate.  But it definitely takes less time than it ever, I think, would without the Transit Tech Lab having— 

Cohen: Yeah.

Matlen: —had those conditions to start.  And also having buy-in and really good working relationships with the procurement and legal teams at the transit agencies from the start is very helpful.

Cohen: Yeah, no.  I like that.  It’s almost like it’s a collective, and because, you know, the startup is kind of a part of this group with the Transit Tech Lab, you kind of benefit from that work that you’re doing on behalf of everyone.  So I like that.  I like that approach.

You mentioned there’s been several groups that have already had tremendous success and have had some scale.  Could you share an example of one, just so we can kind of get our head around the type of things that people are—have done already, or the type of value—

Matlen: Yeah.

Cohen: —that people have brought to transit?

Matlen: Definitely.  So, the first challenge was launched in 2018, 2019, and it was a broad category on how can we improve bus speeds in New York, for New York City Transit.  And lots of different companies applied, and one of the companies who applied that had been trying to sell into the MTA for a while, but was never able to get a grasp, was Remix.  And Remix, for those of you not familiar, it’s a bus network redesign tool.  It really helps automate a lot of manual processes where census data and other sorts of planning software that used to be done on hand is now all done online in a very user-friendly way.  And they’ve had tremendous scale, and they recently were acquired by Via.

But before, back in 2018, when they were still scaling and selling into transit agencies, it was something that the MTA was interested in, but they never really were able to figure out how to procure or how to work with.  And then they were one of the companies who applied through the Transit Tech Lab.  And then, through the proof of concept and through the pilot, we were able to have them work with a bus network redesign team and help understand how a lot of different teams who are working on different aspects of the Fast Forward Plan, which was Andy Byford, who was the renowned Train Daddy, president of New York City Transit.  It was his big plan how to improve bus speeds.  It enabled them to do their job faster, and it saved hours of time of staff time and helped with efficiency.  And it ended up being the tool that the transit planners used every single day, and they couldn’t imagine their lives without it.

And so just by having that buy-in from the project managers, and then also the importance of, you know, this speaks to a broader goal from, you know, all the way up to the chief executive, was really helpful to make that case.  And because it was something that they were able to use through the pilot and then use it every single day, they were able to then demonstrate, you know, success and now the MTA has a procurement and entered into a commercial relationship with Remix.

And so that’s one success story.  I also want to touch on another success story that’s more recent with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.  And they had a very manual process for understanding when elevators and escalators were out.

Cohen: Oh.

Matlen: And they often would find out via Twitter if something was happening, and it would be—like, they had to have manual staff go and literally check the elevators to see is this elevator out, yes or no.  And it would take a tremendous amount of staff time.  And they would—oh, and it would—they would really only know if they were attacked on social media, which is not good in terms of press, but also really in terms of their accessibility, like they—

Cohen: Oh, my gosh.  Yeah.

Matlen: It was really stressful for them.  And there’s a company, Knaq, that applied through the Curb & Accessibility Challenge, and Knaq, they essentially have real-time data to understand where elevators and escalators, what their status is and if there’s any sort of outages there.  And they were able to do proof of concept and a pilot with the Port Authority, and the asset managers of the Port Authority were so impressed by Knaq and were so like, “Wow, this saves us so much time and so much energy.  And just this is so nice to have, and it also helps make sure that we are able to provide accessible services.  And we know and we’re confident that our elevators are working.  If they’re not, we can get staff out there right away to fix it.”  That was a huge win, and they recently entered into a long-term procurement and ability to scale throughout the entire Port Authority system.

And so that’s another example of, you know, something that was a really, you know, manual and challenging problem, didn’t understand how to—or didn’t know the best ways to go about fixing it, and it just so happened that in this very broad call for accessibility, you know, startups to apply, this one came through.

Cohen: So do you know if they already—I mean, so certainly quite familiar with Remix, and certainly they had had some sort of—they had had some sort of success prior to—even if the MTA is a totally different bear.  Right?  I’m not as familiar with Knaq.  Do you know if they had success prior to this?  Or was this something that, like, literally they were kind of—recognized the problem and were able to go solve it in a way that no one had thought of before, and now is able to really make that a reality?  Do you have a sense on that?  I know that might have been before your time.

Matlen: What I do know is that they had not necessarily sold into transit agencies or the public sector.  They had worked in other industries, and they often saw, you know, if they were—I was talking to Brian, the CEO, a few weeks ago, and he was saying, you know, like, “If we saw an RFP was out, we would never apply because we knew it would just take too long.  We couldn’t afford to apply to this RFP, so we didn’t sell into the public sector.”  But if there’s a way that was very simple and seamless, like, for example, we use—the Transit Tech Lab uses the F6S platform, which is a very common standard application platform used across a lot of different startup incubation accelerator programs.  And they were really familiar with the process.  They have done other startup accelerators in the past, and they were able to apply.  And that was an easy way for them to understand, “Oh, like this is—we know how to do this, and this is familiar to us,” versus RFP process, what does that mean, all these other—

Cohen: Right.

Matlen: —other things that, like, especially as a new company you just don’t have that, you know, institutional knowledge or years and years of experience applying to RFPs to be successful.

Cohen: That’s a great example.  I’m really glad that you shared that one.  Because it really does help to identify the fact that there were solutions out here, but they were not even being considered.  They were not even considered in the public sector because of all the headaches associated—

Matlen: Yeah.

Cohen: —with trying to do that.  And so it really does illustrate the value proposition of the work that the Transit Tech Lab is doing to really, essentially, increase the number of potential people that can help solve these problems.  And this has certainly been consistent with some of the things we’ve talked about on the podcast before around, you know, the folks that are sometimes closest to the problem should be the ones that help provide the solutions.  And too often that’s not the case; it’s kind of buried under bureaucracy, it’s buried under procurement, and so forth.

So, that’s a really, really cool story, and I’m really excited to hear about that, beyond the fact that the company, you know, gets that business and gets to grow and so forth.  But for all those riders who need to use those mobility devices—

Matlen: Yeah.

Cohen: —to move around, to know that that elevator is in service, or that that escalator is out of service and they need to take the stairs, or need to get some other—take a different route, whatever.  That’s fantastic news from an accessibility standpoint.  Wow.  Awesome.

I want to wrap up with this.  You know, as you’ve reflected on, you know, the different roles and the fact that you’ve kind of done the private sector, you’ve done the public sector, now you’re in this kind of nonprofit bridging both of those, I’m curious.  You know, you’ve already touched on this a little bit as it relates to kind of your experience working in government and some of the things that you learned from that experience, but I’m curious if there’s any other experiences that you’ve had where, you know, now that you’ve kind of worked across all those different ones, that folks on the outside might not quite appreciate about that experience.  I’m just curious if anything else has kind of jumped out to you, beyond that example you gave earlier about once you got into the public sector, learning about, “Oh, wow; this takes longer than maybe I would have hoped.”

Matlen: Yeah.  So one of the things that I think is interesting now, from my perspective working to help enable public sector or public servants do their job, is I think I didn’t fully appreciate the power I had as a staff member to—and somebody who is working in the public sector, to fully promote and push for change.

So, the reason I say this is because in order for the Trans Tech Lab, for any of our projects to be successful, it really requires strong project managers and buy-in from staff, not just executives, but also the folks who are running it day to day, and those—the project managers at the transit agencies.  And I don’t think—I definitely didn’t have this realization when I was in the public sector where I did actually have a lot of power, and the importance of day-to-day transit agency professionals who go to work every day, they do such important work, and they really do have the power to push for change.  And I don’t think that—I didn’t realize that, and so I would love to, like, for whoever’s listening who might be from the public sector, who might be a staff person who feels like, you know, sometimes frustrated by how long things can take or by just the process—it can beat you down—but at the end of the day, you are still the one advocating for the public sector and for these broader equity goals, and you do have the power to—if you see something that’s really interesting and powerful, you can push that forward.  

And as long as you have, like, the right support network around you, and you have good managers, and if you are setting good goals and metrics to measure success, you have the power to raise that and then promote that and have that be a solution that’s scaled across all of citizens, all residents.  Like, you do have that power, and I think that’s one of the things that I think I didn’t fully realize, and I would like to try to, you know, give a huge shout-out to all of the transit agency folks and public sector folks who go to work every day and are really passionate and really good at their jobs.  And it just can be sometimes—I know the struggle.  It can be draining, but also just to take a step back and be like, “Wow, like, I am doing really solid work, and I do have the power to create change.”

So I think that’s one thing from the public sector side.  I think for the private sector side, I have always been skeptical of technology as being this silver bullet, like, “Oh, it’s going to solve—AVs are going to come, and then we’re going to have no transportation problems.”  And I’ve always just, like, rolled my eyes at the extremists on the tech side saying, “Well, technology can solve everything.” And while it is true technology cannot solve everything, and it’s definitely, you know—that’s not—there’s no silver bullet for any problem, I do want to take a little bit of a step back from my, like, hardcore stance in the past, you know, that [LAUGHTER] if you have a very specific problem, and if you can—like, if you’re focusing on the problem, there can be room for technology to help solve that, and they really can improve positive change.

Cohen: Yeah.

Matlen: And so as long as you’re specific about the challenge, and there are ways for technology to work towards improving it, it can improve government operations more broadly and improve a specific challenge.  So, like, for example, with Knaq, with Remix, you know, there are very tangible value propositions and ways for technology to help the public sector achieve its goals.

So—and I think an interesting parallel, just a really quick sidebar is, with autonomous vehicle technology, you know, I am encouraged by autonomous vehicles but also skeptical.  I want to make sure that this technology that’s a tool is used to really promote equity and not just continue to exacerbate the existing inequalities that exist in society.  But an interesting example that I’ve seen is not just for this technology such as lidar, such as computer vision and AI, that is—a lot of research and development is being used specifically for autonomous vehicles, but what we’ve seen in the Transit Tech Lab, we have a signaling challenge that has been working to help this hundred-year-old technology system that runs the subway system, working to understand how new technologies can help improve subway speeds and help the train operators do their jobs better and have a better sense of where the subway train is along the tracks.

This AV technology can be used in parallel sectors and can be used to solve public transit challenges as well.  So that’s a really interesting separate applications that, oh wow, like, technology can be a really amazing tool, as long as you know the problem that you’re trying to solve. 

Cohen: Yeah, that’s a great perspective.  And, I think, having a key understanding of those goals, of those community goals, and ensuring that alignment with the senior leadership that you talked about before, I think, is really key there to helping make sure that the end-result technology actually does move the needle on those community goals.

Matlen: Yeah.

Cohen: So, Stacey, this is wonderful.  Thank you, thank you, thank you so much for giving us an introduction into some of the work that you’re doing now, a little bit of your history as well.  And because I think that’s important because I think it’s influenced how you’ve approached your job and the work you’re doing now.  So thank you so much for joining us today to share a little bit about that, and also share a little bit of that positive spirit there—

Matlen: [LAUGHS]

Cohen: —that you do have that power to create that change.  Thank you.

Matlen: Thank you, Josh.  It’s been a pleasure.

F: Thanks for listening.  If you like what you hear, head to Apple Podcasts and subscribe, rate, and review this podcast.  You can find out more at or follow Josh Cohen on Twitter at @CohenJP.  Be sure to join us next week for another episode of The Movement.  

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