The Curious Case of the York Street Median — Part II

I’ll give the City of Fredericton some credit — they’re fairly progressive in the fact that they have an open data portal. Municipalities across Canada are slowly rolling out their own versions, giving citizens the data required to solve problems in their own backyard. The drawback is that these datasets are fairly early stage and are presented mainly in the form of ever-expansive Excel sheets with data that becomes more outdated by the day. It’s far from perfect, but it’s a great start.

From Fredericton’s traffic accidents dataset, it can be found that there have been 23 collisions at the corner of Kings College and York Street over the last 9 years.

In Part I, we concluded that the issue isn’t the number of collisions at that intersection - the true problem is that commuters travelling along Kings College have been getting too comfortable and are speeding across this residential street, making local residents worried for the safety of their families.

At the first Town Council meeting regarding this issue, the construction of a median was voted down, but the problem was not solved. The old-school way of discussing an issue was used; one party says what they think, followed by the other party shooting down their opponent and saying what they think.

Don’t you think it’s time to change the way we approach civic issues by bringing data to the table?

By introducing data to the discussion, we’re able to change the format of the conversation from a “you against me” situation to an “us against the data” scenario. All too often we’re so quick to pick a side and never give the others a chance to explain themselves.

I promised myself that I wouldn’t let this post get political, but with all the intense two-party arguments that seem to be going on right now, shouldn’t we try to work a little harder to utilize tools available to us to work together to reach an agreement that benefits everyone?

Right away the discussion would start on a more productive note by introducing what’s actually happening (data), then taking everyone’s requests into consideration (constraints). This method not only allows all people affected to be included in the conversation, it also unifies the group and gets them working together to solve the problem that has been unearthed by our numerical friend, data.

So, besides the information openly available about collisions, what else might be collected to make the decision process easier? As we discussed previously, it’s apparent that the problem is not York Street at all, rather, it’s the speed at which commuters are travelling across Kings College that has residents worried.

I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but technology has evolved a lot over the years. They even figured out a way to put solar panels inside calculators so they’ll never run out of juice! So it’s only fitting that traffic counting technology has also been modernized by replicating what a summer student sitting in a lawn chair at a street corner with a tally counter and a radar gun is able to do.

I introduce to you, automatic radar traffic counters! All you have to do is strap one of these weatherproof boxes to a utility pole and let it do the counting for you. It’s able to measure speed, direction of travel, and even length of the vehicle. The best part? It won’t complain about having to sit out in the blistering sun all day!

Pretty nifty, amirite?

Let’s say that it costs $1,000 a week to rent one of these automatic traffic counters, plus $200 for the installation, and another $500 for the data (engineering firms need to make money too, right?).

For a total of $1,700, you will have solid empirical evidence showing the true traffic patterns going along Kings College. On the flip-side, if you were to pay someone $15 an hour to sit and count traffic, it would cost $2,520 (plus any legal fees associated with forcing someone to work 168 hours straight).

While some may argue that $1,700 is a waste of taxpayer money, consider the cost of closing, resurfacing, and installing a median on York Street. Paying less than $2,000 to justify the construction of likely a multi-million dollar project seems like a worthwhile investment to me.

Now we have actual data pertaining to the traffic. These aren’t estimates, averages, or what Mrs. Walker in the red house around the corner has to say about it. We finally have raw data showing exactly how fast people are traveling. Finally, we can now begin to work out a solution because we now know what and where the actual problem is.

The next step is to release the data into the wild to allow anyone and everyone to make use of the data to develop a solution that:

  1. Solves the problem
  2. Fairly takes into account all the constraints
  3. Can be agreed on by all

By allowing everyone to take part in the discussion, the problem will be attacked from every angle as each person will have a different point of view, giving light to new ideas that may have never been though of before.

To me, that sounds a whole lot like innovation.

Check back soon for Part III where we show how data storytelling can be used to help a neighbourhood in need.