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NYC Tech Group Seizes on de Blasio Agenda with Call for Traffic Accident Data

BY Miranda Neubauer | Wednesday, January 22 2014

(Transportation Alternatives)

For the New York City technology community, it is time for better traffic data to help prevent some of the unintended dangerous traffic problems in New York City.

BetaNYC, New York City's Code for America brigade, is embracing the prospect of change under the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio by seizing on his agenda priority to prevent pedestrian fatalities to renew its call for the city and the NYPD to release traffic data in a more usable format.

De Blasio announced his "Vision Zero" initiative on January 15, charging a working group to develop by February 15 a roadmap report focused on how to prevent traffic fatalities, especially among pedestrians, after several high-profile traffic deaths of children, including another case on the Upper West Side last week.

As techPresident has previously reported, many advocacy groups focused on street safety and civic technologists have been critical of the quality and the format of traffic data available to them that they say could help analyze the causes and prevalence of traffic accidents.

At a hearing on the implementation of New York City's open data law in November, Juan Martinez, general counsel at Transportation Alternatives, complained that the NYPD added formatting to the traffic data it is required to release. That results, he said, in more work for advocates who would be faced with unusable data if it weren't for civic hackers who had managed to extract and scrape some of the datasets. "It's not as if we need the NYPD to do more work. Actually we're asking them to do less work," he said.

With a petition campaign launched at the end of last week, BetaNYC is hoping to raise awareness of that issue not only with the de Blasio administration, but also the incoming City Council.

The petition calls on the NYPD to publish crash and summons data in a machine readable format as mandated by New York City's open data law, include more time and location information and accident causes if available, and institute regular and real-time updates. The petition also calls for meetings between civic hackers and data managers at the NYPD and the Department of Transportation to discuss best practices and collaboration opportunities.

Noel Hidalgo, betaNYC co-founder and executive director, said calls for better crash data go back to 2009. "With a new mayor, a new police commissioner and a new DOT commissioner, this is an appropriate time to take this conversation to the next level," he said. "You're a progressive mayor, here's the next step in utilizing technology, using data, using the ethos of community based policing [to make it easier for us] to build apps or analyze data to make getting around New York City safer."

He emphasized that under the previous commissioner, the NYPD "never set forth" the data in the format mandated by the open data law and that the technology community was now looking to the new commissioner to comply with the local law.

Several City Council members, including Manhattan member Ben Kallos, had expressed interest in working on these issues in pre-election interviews with advocacy group StreetPAC, he added.

On Wednesday, the New York City Council Rules Committee announced that Kallos would be chair of the Government Operations Committee and Bronx Council member James Vacca would be the new chair of the Technology Committee, whose membership also includes Bronx Council member Annabel Palma, Queens Council member Mark Weprin, Brooklyn Council member David Greenfield and Staten Island Council member Steven Matteo.

The campaign is just one element of a larger betaNYC campaign this year to step up outreach to City Council members and local Community Boards with a focus on how insight and maps based on open data can help them gain a better understanding of their local communities and improve governance, a goal outlined in the People's Roadmap to a Digital City authored by betaNYC and other members of the NYC Technology Community.

As part of the Beyond Transparency Campaign, betaNYC is hosting a series of meetups and hacknights dedicated to determining the challenges facing local officials and developing tools to serve City Council and Community Board members. At an initial meeting, attendees shared some of their frustrations and desired tools, as Hidalgo recapped in a blog post for betaNYC. Comments touched on how better 311 data could lead to more productive Community Board discussions, ways to improve the high school selection process as well as more detailed crash data.

That event has kicked off weekly hacknights dedicated to specific subject areas, with upcoming hack nights focused on transit and schools data this Wednesday night and focused on land use issues as well as 311 and census data in the weeks to come. Some projects underway draw on the NYPD's crime map, which activists also say needs improvement, bike share data, New York City waterways data and NYPD crash data. The hack nights will culminate in a two day Code Across NYC hackathon February 22 and 23 to build tools to showcase to local officials.

Transportation issues have been a catalyst for the New York City civic hacker community and open data campaigns, with the calls for better NYPD data also fueled by hack nights focused on CitiBike data last summer and fall.

"It is a tangible element, it cuts across all New Yorkers, who walk the streets of New York, who ride a bike, or who drive a car," Hidalgo said. "This is a clear opportunity to use information to improve the streets of New York, a lot of people understand why this should be a priority." With transportation policy conversations in general historically more broadly focused on cars, he said there was an opportunity to refocus on the needs of pedestrians, who are in the majority in New York City.

In a recent piece titled "This Chart Explains Why the Nation Is Riveted By the Chris Christie Scandal," The Atlantic recently promoted a chart released by Queens Council member Jimmy Van Bramer, who has been elected Council majority leader, of his 2013 constituent service requests, with requests related to transportation issues among the most numerous. "We often talk about transportation – and its sub-genres of parking policy, street design, traffic management and mass transit planning – as a niche interest of nerds at the national level. Locally, though, no issue is more politically potent," Emily Badger wrote. Nancy Scola also noted that the lack of data from the supposed "traffic study" was a key factor in the escalation of the scandal.

Jimmy Van Bramer

In New York City, the challenges of working with official NYPD data have spurred developers to create third-party tools, such as Crashmapper and an OpenStreetMap tool from Transportation Alternatives.

De Blasio has not yet made any personnel announcements related to technology or analytics. "We're patient," Hidalgo said. "The goals of the de Blasio administration are complementary to the open data initiative...We know the administration wants to get tech infrastructure right from the Mayor's Office of Data Analytics, to digital services and to IT infrastructure, they're taking the appropriate time[...]."

Building on a record of working with the city under Bloomberg, Hidalgo said the campaign is "just one way to ensure that our activism continues to stay relevant...For us, this is doubling down on the political investment we made with the last administration."

The Mayor's Office and the NYPD have not responded to a request for comment.