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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.”