At the Intersection of Road Safety and Data

How Code for Canada fellows are contributing to the City of Toronto’s Vision Zero Road Safety Plan

Hi! We’re Evan, Pallavi and Andrew, a team of Code for Canada fellows working with Toronto Transportation Services.

From left: Code for Canada fellows Andrew, Evan, and Pallavi doing some affinity mapping.

We really love Toronto. And we want to be able to travel around it safely, as we go to work, visit friends and family, and eat really good Hakka food. As the city enters the third year of its Vision Zero Road Safety Plan, we’re honoured to get the chance to work with Toronto’s Transportation Services division on a project that will help staff prioritize life-saving interventions, and enable all of us to see what Toronto is doing to implement Vision Zero.

Vision Zero depends on CRASH and FLOW

From our vantage point, embedded within Transportation Services’ Big Data Innovation Team (BDIT), we’ve been unpacking a normally hidden but essential part of the city’s Vision Zero plan: the data infrastructure that tracks collisions and traffic flow through the city. With the support and guidance of Jesse Coleman and the rest of BDIT, we’ve begun to dive deep into the reality of what it’s like to work with these systems, currently called CRASH and FLOW.

Before we began our work as fellows, we honed our skills designing and shipping software products in uncertain and challenging environments, and we know how hard it is to make the right decision without the right data. And while the City of Toronto has been tracking vehicle collisions and movements for more than 30 years, the cost in human hours required to collect, store, and interpret the data is enormous.

It’s a system that’s been working — but, having first been built in the mid-1980s, it’s beginning to fray around the edges. Beyond simply addressing the limitations of the current systems, It’s time to imagine what a better future would look like for everyone, inside and outside of City Hall, who should engage with collision and flow data.

Our first month of user research

Andrew, Evan and Pallavi meeting with a staff member from Toronto Transportation Services as part their user research.

With Pallavi’s design leadership to guide us, we’ve been canvassing the diverse users that work with these systems. We’ve conducted 23 interviews with 16 different user groups, documenting 43 distinct tasks that use or feed into CRASH and FLOW. And after a couple facilitated user discovery exercises with our 30+ stakeholders, we’ve used hundreds of sticky notes too.

In short: we’ve learned a lot.

We learned precisely how City of Toronto staff keep CRASH and FLOW afloat. They are people like Cathy, who, for the last 20 years, has worked to verify and save collision data as it comes in. Or there’s Kenny, who uses these databases to determine where new School and Senior Safety Zones should be established. And there’s Jesse and BDIT, as well as Jim in I&T, who have worked to keep these systems working with new processes, tools, and technologies.

For instance, when the Traffic Safety Unit needs to look holistically at how safe all 86 kilometres of Yonge St. is, or when a new type of vehicle count becomes available, BDIT and I&T find ways to make this data available and useful. But the complexity of the overlapping systems behind this data mean that new features are hard to build and maintain. It’s time to make a system that can grow as Transportation Services does.

Civic engagement through data

Along the way, we’ve seen how hard it is to bring this data to the public, too. If these systems were designed in a way that take external, public-facing needs just as seriously, what would they look like? Using a survey of vulnerable road users, and one-on-one calls with local community groups tasked with advocating for them, we’ve begun to unpack what we can do to prioritize the citizens of Toronto, too. And that’s a process that needs inclusion and engagement of residents at its core.

As someone much smarter than I put it, in describing how Philadelphia’s Office of Urban Mechanics works: “Technology isn’t so much the solution as it is a way to get more people involved in figuring out what the solution should be.”

Finding a new path for CRASH and FLOW

Evan and Pallavi using sticky notes to sort through insights gleaned from early user research at the City of Toronto.

The fellowship is only ten months long, which gives us a lot of urgency in our work. We’ve got a limited window of time to create something lasting, and that meets real needs of real people.

Next up for us is a crucial stage: synthesis. We’ve got to take what we’ve learned, consolidate it into insight about what matters to our users, and then begin to turn that into a product vision. Given how many different user groups use CRASH and FLOW now, we expect it will take a substantial amount of time — and a lot more sticky notes — but it’s essential if we’re going to build the right thing.

If you’d like to follow along with our fellowship journey, you can find us on Tumblr, where we’ll be posting about our process and discoveries as we go. We look forward to sharing them, and to finding opportunities for residents like you to help us define the future of data and traffic safety in Toronto.

And if you’d like to learn more about Toronto’s Vision Zero Road Safety Plan, including the new mapping tool, check out the Vision Zero homepage on toronto.ca.


The Code for Canada fellowship embeds technology professionals into government, where they work alongside public servants to build great digital services. To learn more about becoming a fellow, or hosting a team of fellows in your department, visit codefor.ca/fellowship.