Personal Democracy Plus Our premium content network. LEARN MORE You are not logged in. LOG IN NOW >

What to Do With All That Transit Data

BY Sam Roudman | Wednesday, March 27 2013

A sample visualization of MTA performance indicators, using Roambi.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority bills itself as North America’s largest transportation network, covering a population of 14.9 million centered in New York City. And like many vast bureaucracies, the MTA collects vast amounts of data, covering everything from completed trips to wheelchair lift usage.

But just collecting data and loading it onto a server doesn’t make it useful. It has to be decipherable as well. A new report from the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA highlights improvements the MTA can make to ensure its data is easier to understand and use both internally and externally, and shows how data visualizations might be more useful than endless rows of spreadsheet cells.

“This is a really prescient time to have this discussion just because we’re starting to get big data flowing in from the agencies,” says William Henderson, executive director of PCAC. “And decisions have to be made about what to do with it.”

The report was two years in the making, and included interviews with more than 50 MTA staffers. The report found that the MTA’s open data policy was being held back in part by poor communication between departments.

“With technology developing so quickly, and it not being a priority at the MTA, individual departments had developed data silos that couldn’t talk to each other,” says Ellyn Shannon, CPAC’s senior transportation planner and the report’s co-author. “Keeping track of them was difficult, and there was not much cross platform information.”

Initially, Shannon found MTA staffers resistant to the idea of data visualization. “They were hostile or dismissive when we mentioned the words data visualization,” she says. That changed when Shannon and her research assistant Angela Bellisio visualized transit data from January of 2008 through April 2011 using a tool called Roambi.

“Once we had a visual to explain what we meant by visuals, the attitudes changed,” says Bellisio.

With Roambi, Bellisio was able illustrate the MTA’s performance data over months or years, and illustrate percent increases or decreases in performance with color coded boxes — highlighted red for decreases in performance, and green for increases.

According to Shannon, a widely available trend tool for MTA data would streamline the data gathering process.

“Instead of relying on the MTA to say I need a number for this article or this testimony, you can start to answer some of the questions yourself,” she says.

The report also highlights how data visualization can help the MTA show off its successes.

“The MTA has significant positive trend lines whether it’s ridership, on time performance, mean distance between failure or the amount of service that they’re doing today versus ten years ago,” says Shannon “but there’s nowhere that you can go on the MTA website to really find those.”

“There's a lot of potential here,” says Gene Russianoff, attorney and spokesman for NYPIRG’s Straphangers Campaign, a transportation watchdog group, and co-chair of the NYC Transparency Working Group. As an example of how data visualization can improve transportation, he points to Bus Trek, a program that allows bus dispatchers to even out service by looking at GPS data on a map showing where service has gaps or is bunching up.

Beyond singing the praises of data visualization, the report calls for investments in IT and in training and conference attendance for MTA staffers (both areas that were cut back three years ago), and calls for increased open data initiatives.

Even with the MTA’s move towards openness, Russianoff maintains a wish list of data he’d like to see the agency release:

“At the top of my list is to make their financial and budget reports machine readable, digitizing historical data,” he says, “and having archives that go further back in time.” He’d also like to see the MTA’s complaint data.

The MTA is behind the report's findings, and has started a working group to help implement its recommendations.

For Shannon, the response from the MTA is heartening.

“I’ve been here 12 years, done a lot of reports,” she says. “The ship is turning in the right direction.”

News Briefs

RSS Feed tuesday >

Ruck.us Reboots As a Candidate Digital Toolkit That's a Bit Too Like Democracy.com

Ruck.us launched with big ambitions and star appeal, hoping to crack the code on how to get millions of people to pool their political passions through their platform. When that ambition stalled, its founder Nathan Daschle--son of the former Senator--decided to pivot to offering political candidates an easy-to-use free web platform for organizing and fundraising. Now the new Ruck.us is out from stealth mode, entering a field already being served by competitors like NationBuilder, Salsa Labs and Democracy.com. And strangely enough, Ruck.us seems to want its early users to ask Democracy.com for help. GO

Armenian Legislators: You Can Be As Anonymous on the 'Net As You Like—Until You Can't

A proposed bill in Armenia would make it illegal for media outlets to include defamatory remarks by anonymous or fake sources, and require sites to remove libelous comments within 12 hours unless they identify the author.

GO

monday >

The Good Wife Looks for the Next Snowden and Outwits the NSA

Even as the real Edward Snowden faces questions over his motives in Russia, another side of his legacy played out for the over nine million viewers of last night's The Good Wife, which concluded its season long storyline exploring NSA surveillance. In the episode titled All Tapped Out, one young NSA worker's legal concerns lead him to becoming a whistle-blower, setting off a chain of events that allows the main character, lawyer Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies), and her husband, Illinois Governor Peter Florrick (Chris Noth), to turn the tables on the NSA using its own methods. GO

The Expanding Reach of China's Crowdsourced Environmental Monitoring Site, Danger Maps

Last week billionaire businessman Jack Ma, founder of the e-commerce company Alibaba, appealed to his “500 million-strong army” of consumers to help monitor water quality in China. Inexpensive testing kits sold through his company can be used to measure pH, phosphates, ammonia, and heavy metal levels, and then the data can be uploaded via smartphone to the environmental monitoring site Danger Maps. Although the initiative will push the Chinese authorities' tolerance for civic engagement and activism, Ethan Zuckerman has high hopes for “monitorial citizenship” in China.

GO

The 13 Worst Bits of Russia's Current and Maybe Future Internet Legislation

It appears that Russia is on the brink of passing still more repressive Internet regulations. A new telecommunications bill that would require popular blogs—those with 3,000 or more visits a day—to join a government registry and conform to government-mandated standards is expected to pass this week. What follows is a list of the worst bits of both proposed and existing Russian Internet law. Let us know in the comments or on Twitter if we missed anything.

GO

Transparency and Public Shaming: Pakistan Tackles Tax Evasion

In Pakistan, where only one in 200 citizens files their income tax return, authorities published a directory of taxpayers' details for the first time. Officials explained the decision as an attempt to shame defaulters into paying up.

GO

wednesday >

Facebook Seeks Approval as Financial Service in Ireland. Is the Developing World Next?

On April 13 the Financial Times reported that Facebook is only weeks away from being approved as a financial service in Ireland. Is this foray into e-money motivated by Facebook's desire to conquer the developing world before other corporate Internet giants do? Maybe.

GO

The Rise and Fall of Iran's “Blogestan”

The robust community of Iranian bloggers—sometimes nicknamed “Blogestan”—has shrunk since its heyday between 2002 – 2010. “Whither Blogestan,” a recent report from the University of Pennsylvania's Iran Media Program sought to find out how and why. The researchers performed a web crawling analysis of Blogestan, survey 165 Persian blog users, and conducted 20 interviews with influential bloggers in the Persian community. They found multiple causes of the decline in blogging, including increased social media use and interference from authorities.

GO

More