Smart city tech

Survey company wants to make collection information in Houston short, sweet, and to the point

Wyzerr, a member of Station Houston's Ion Smart Cities Accelerator, has a way to better collect information from citizens. Photo courtesy of Wyzerr

In a 2019 report card handed out by Cincinnati-based startup Wyzerr, Houston didn't do too well — It got a C, a 2.5 out of 4. Houston is passing, but just barely.

Wyzerr didn't give the city a bad rating; Houstonians did. In July, Wyzerr sent two researchers downtown to hang out near public places — bus stops, street corners, etc. Overall, respondents said they are satisfied with dining options, shopping, and the airports but were really struggling to embrace long commutes, poor local transit, and even public services: the police department, local government, schools and parking all got grades of C minus.

Wyzerr, which has ventured to Houston to partake in the ongoing Ion Smart Cities Accelerator out of Station Houston, is focused on creating surveys that make it easier for companies — and, increasingly, cities and airports — to collect useful information to improve their offerings.

"You can't build perfect cities," says Natasia Malaihollo, founder of Wyzerr. "But if you make small, incremental improvements, you can start to see a difference in communities (through Wyzerr's smart surveys)."

Wyzerr began in June 2014 and focused on designing smart survey for retailers. Now, the company works with more than 2,100 small and large businesses, including Kroger, Walmart, Facebook, Unilever — a lot of consumer packaged goods, Malaihollo says.

Wyzerr is focused on creating engaging surveys to better collect information. Photo courtesy of Wyzerr

Consumers interact with many of these brands on a near-daily basis, and Malaihollo estimates a person might get his with 7 surveys in a day — some of which require dialing in, or going online, or filling out responses on a sheet of receipt paper.

But Wyzerr makes surveys fun — they're interactive and game-like. Most importantly, though, they're short. Nearly every survey is designed to wind a customer through 25 questions about their experience with a certain retailer, product or service in 30 to 60 seconds. There's a science to it — shorter word counts on survey questions, for example, and making the final questions as engaging as possible, because people usually start answering more quickly, and maybe less thoughtfully, toward the end of a survey form.

Malaihollo calls this a design-focused approach to market research, and it has gotten results. In some surveys, Wyzerr was able to gather data on up to 20 percent of total consumers. Unlike most survey engagement, which usually falls lower, Wyzerr's data meets the threshold for statistical analysis — a valid sample size, in mathematics, is 10 percent of the population.

Two years ago, the Cincinnati Airport approached them. Amid a stream of reports that airports would develop into great hubs for the future of retail, the Cincinnati Airport team wanted a way to track shoppers' satisfaction as they trafficked through the terminals. Wyzerr created a survey that connected to the airport's Wi-Fi system — if users wanted to log on, they had to take a brief survey first.

"That ended up being our most successful campaign," Malaihollo says.

Wyzer, which has a team of 12, has raised $2 million and is getting ready to raise more. Upon completion of the accelerator program, the company will work with a Houston neighborhood for a pilot program, and the team hopes to get their survey system on the Wi-Fi system in Houston airports early next year.

Now, Wyzerr focuses on gathering data for smart cities — urban spaces that offer higher-tech solutions to regular city activities, like parking, and use electronic sensors to collect data that helps monitor the public. For example, cities across the U.S. have adapted free Wi-Fi on public transit, parking lot trackers, smart traffic lights to reduce congestion, automated bike-sharing programs and pedestrian detectors at intersections.

The Ion Smart Cities Accelerator program's inaugural cohort is moving into its next phase, and some participating startups earned some cash along the way. Courtesy of Station Houston

The Ion Smart Cities Accelerator wrapped up the first phase of its inaugural program with a demo day this week as the startups move onto the pilot phase.

Over the past three months, the 10 selected startups have been working with mentors and the Station Houston resources to hone their companies within the program's new dedicated space, which includes a prototyping lab. At the demo day, which represents the conclusion of the first part of the Intel- and Microsoft-backed program, the startups presented their companies, what they've accomplished, and where they are headed.

Two companies received $5,000 checks from sponsors. GoKid, a carpooling optimization tool, received a prize from Brex, a credit card for startups. The other big winner was Aatonomy, a self-driving communities technology, which was awarded by Gulf States Toyota.

Ion Accelerator Demo Day F. Carter Smith

The second leg of the journey begins in January with pilot programs for the next six months. According to Christine Galib, director of Ion Smart Cities Accelerator, the companies have 15 pilots in the Houston area that hope to positively affect the lives of Houstonians.

"Our startups' technology focuses on connecting people. And this is what makes Houston truly the smartest city in America," says Galib. "To truly be the smartest city in America, we must continue to focus on how we connect people, and why we connect people, as well as to provide the processes and partnerships for these connections — not only to occur by chance, but also to be sustainable."

Gabriella Rowe, executive director of The Ion, echoed the importance people had on the smart cities equation.

"The great success that this accelerator has experienced over the last three months has really been because of people," she says.

Among those people who received a special shoutout from Rowe were the program's inaugural set of mentors. Several of these mentors introduced each of the startups as they presented.

"All of you opened your calendars, your time, and your wisdom to help these startups, but also to help our city," Rowe says to the crowd, which included the program mentors. "And to express a universal desire to make Houston the best possible city it can be, accessible to all Houstonians in every way as we grow to be that innovation economy and city of the future."