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January 31, 2017

Good Transport Data Can Change Cities

Jacob Mason, ITDP Transport Research and Evaluation Manager, reports back from the UN World Data Forum in South Africa on how transport data can help create sustainable cities.

The pace of change in cities has reached breakneck speed. Mayors are often so overwhelmed with day-to-day issues that they have a hard time thinking about the long-term effects of all the decisions they make. It’s often hard to even tell if things are getting better or worse. Transportation data in many cities is either hard to obtain or missing entirely.

As part of ITDP’s effort to influence better decision making by mayors and elected officials, ITDP traveled to Cape Town, South Africa for the first ever UN World Data Forum.  The forum gathered data experts from around the world to share data related ideas and achievements.

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New Sources of Data
In Cape Town, ITDP met with representatives from the European Union who have developed a guide for how to work with private institutions and business to use their data without hurting their business model. The upshot: make the data anonymous so it can’t be tied to any person, and aggregate it so it doesn’t give away industry secrets.

A representative from Facebook spoke about their work doing exactly this with governments to help them better understand their countries and cities. In addition, several researchers talked about their experience working with anonymized and aggregated cell phone records. This private information was used to help target malaria treatment centers in Africa, but could also be useful in better understanding how people travel around cities.


Limited access to specific data also presents a challenge.

Combine Data to Fill Gaps
Another major challenge in data collection is achieving complete coverage. For example, collecting data on walkability requires physically examining each block to understand the characteristics of the built environment (streets and buildings) there. This is very expensive and time consuming, meaning that typically only a sample of city blocks can actually be surveyed. To improve the coverage of data, researchers at the forum showed that by combining multiple data sources, they could infer data for locations not covered by the initial in-depth data collection. Sources of additional data include satellite imagery, cell phone data, and social media, which can provide a more complete data coverage of an area. Researchers then found relationships between the original sample data and the more complete data set. Often the relationships were weak, but with multiple weak relationships to complete data sources, the researchers were able to reasonably infer data for locations that were not surveyed.

*The full presentations from the UN Data Forum on big data, data and algorithms, and using photos as data are available online. 

What’s Next?
To better translate these ideas into practice, ITDP is hosting a Mobility Data Forum in San Francisco in partnership with Microsoft, where these ideas and other can all meet to develop concrete ideas for translating data into indicators. These indicators can help transport planners understand how people are moving in a city and track progress over time. With this information, leaders can make better decisions about where a city is headed, bringing us closer to sustainable cities and a healthier, more equitable planet.


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