TECH
12/31/2015 01:25 pm ET Updated Aug 01, 2016

This Is How Visualizing Open Data Can Help Save Lives

Identifying the location of pedestrian and cyclist injuries is a key first step for cities to reduce the occurrence.

Cities are increasingly releasing data that they can use to make life better for their residents online -- enabling journalists and researchers to better inform the public. 

Los Angeles, for example, has analyzed data about injuries and deaths on its streets and published it online. Now people can check its conclusions and understand why LA's public department prioritizes certain intersections. 

The impact from these kinds of investments can lead directly to saving lives and preventing injuries. The work is part of a broader effort around the world to make cities safer.

Like New York City, San Francisco and Portland, Oregon, Los Angeles has adopted Sweden's "Vision Zero" program as part of its strategy for eliminating traffic deathsCalifornia led the nation in bicycle deaths in 2014.

At visionzero.lacity.org, you can see that the City of Los Angeles is using data visualization to identify the locations of "high injury networks," or the 6 percent of intersections that account for 65 percent of the severe injuries in the area. 

City of Los Angeles

Abhi Nemani, the former chief data officer for LA, explained why the city needed to "go back to school" for help.

"In resource-constrained environments -- the environment most cities find themselves in these days -- you often have to beg, borrow, and steal innovation; particularly so, when it comes to in-demand resources such as data science expertise," he told the Huffington Post.  

"That's why in Los Angeles, we opted to lean on the community for support: both the growing local tech sector and the expansive academic base. The academic community, in particular, was eager to collaborate with the city. In fact, most -- if not all -- local institutions reached out to me at some point asking to partner on a data science project with their graduate students."

Due to liability concerns, however, the city relied upon internal analyses within the Department of Transportation and the Mayor's Office to make safety-related infrastructure changes, including the Los Angeles Police Department has been cracking down on jaywalking near the University of Southern California.

Another member of LA's tech sector is trying to use data visualization to eliminate traffic deaths, although they have no official relationship with the city. DataScience, based in Culver City, California, received $22 million dollars in funding in December to make predictive insights for customers. (Los Angeles is not one of them.)

"The City of Los Angeles is very data-driven," DataScience CEO Ian Swanson told HuffPost. "I commend Mayor Eric Garcetti and the City of Los Angeles on the openness, transparency, and availability of city data initiatives, like Vision Zero, put the City of Los Angeles' data into action and improve life in this great city."

DataScience created an interactive online map showing the locations of collisions involving bicycles across the city. If you look at the data visualization (below), you can quickly see where the problems are:

(DataScience)

Data scientist Dave Goodsmith made the visualization and published it in the Los Angeles Times in December. In his op-ed, Goodsmith encouraged people to look at the maps, identify problem areas and suggest further analyses and actions to mitigate the risks. 

He found that three leading causes of driver fault in the 230 collisions between bicycles and cars since 2015 in Los Angeles were a failure to yield the right of way, improper turns and driving at unsafe speeds. When cyclists were at fault, it was usually because they were riding on the wrong side of the street or failed to yield the right of way to cars. To help mitigate those risks, Goodsmith suggests that LA create clearer separations between cyclists and cars to address the issues.

Here's the good news: that's already happening. It's going to take a long time to reshape a city built around cars to safely accommodate other modes of transportation safely, but LA is thinking in terms of decades, not days.

"The number of people biking has grown more than any other mode since 2007," Seleta Reynolds, general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Transportation, told HuffPost. 

Since 2012, the city has invested in a big way in 230 miles of bike improvements, including its first protected bike way at Reseda.

"We are literally protecting the most vulnerable users -- people walking and biking -- with a row of parked cars," she said. "That's created a better feeling of safety and, we hope, safety outcomes."

Los Angeles is also taking steps to reduce car-pedestrian interactions in problem spots, according to Reynolds.

"A good example is what we did over at Hollywood and Highland, which has long been a hotspot for pedestrian crashes," she said. "It's one of the most heavily walked intersections. Lots of crashes tell you a lot of people walking, but without knowing the collision rate, it's hard to assess if that intersection is more or less dangerous than another. What we did know is that there were an unacceptable number of people getting injured or killed."

To address the issue, Los Angeles put in the city's largest "pedestrian scramble," where drivers from every approach are held on an all-red light, enabling people to cross in any direction, including diagonally, to separate turning drivers from the walkers. 

Reynolds also highlighted work at Rowena Avenue, another problem spot, where the city has consolidated the lanes, added a center turn lane and a bike route. As a result, the amount of crashes has halved, even as the number of people biking increased.

It's not just the finished product that counts, but the process and the engagement

As Swanson and Goodsmith noted, Angelenos should be proud that Los Angeles is now a global leader in publishing open data online. If a journalist was to update this white paper on the use of data for the public good, LA's story would be a strong addition.

"People can connect with their city using their city's data to understand and work with their city in ways that have never been available before," Peter Marx, LA's first chief technology officer, told HuffPost. "The whole point of open data is to increase transparency of government and make it easier for people to understand their city."

As Todd Park, the former chief technology officer of the United States, and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg have separately observed, however, neither open data nor technology can solve social problems on its own

People need to apply both for civic good in our communities. Research finds that the impact of opening government data on accountability in societies is dependent not only on it being accessible to the public.

The social impact of open data relies not just upon increasing the capacity of city governments to analyze what's working -- or not -- but elected leaders to act to address the problems data visualizations like these reveal. 

Data Science's work is a terrific example of how open government data can be visualized to inform the public about a public safety issue and engage people in solutions.

For that matter, so is the work of the Los Angeles Times' Data Desk, which cleaned and analyzed California collision data to find the city's 817 most dangerous intersections.

Los Angeles Times

Now that the the residents of Los Angeles can see exactly where the issues are, validated by multiple parties they can hold the city accountable for fixing them. 

This is precisely why applying data science in the public sector matters, where technologists of crunch government data for insights can improve how programs work and even save lives.

"Measuring the success of projects such as these is a bit more nuanced than one might typically think," LA's former chief data officer Nemani said.

"It's not just the finished product that counts, but the process and the engagement -- much like what I saw at Code for America. Indicators of success are not only the utility of the analysis, but also the increased interest from departments in data science, knowledge transfer both to students on city government and to city staff on data science, and the eagerness for executive leadership to build out data science capacity within city hall. These kinds of institutional shifts are harder to quantify or track but, in my opinion, provide the long-term impact necessary for a data-savvy city hall."

Here's hoping that in 2016, every city will find ways to use public data to inform, empower and protect the public using evidence-based policies.

Also on HuffPost:

Correction: This article originally misattributed statements made by Reynolds to LA deputy chief officer Lilian Coral. It also stated that LA used the results of USC data analyses to make changes (the city did not, due to liability constraints) and suggested that the city was working with DataScience. According to a city spokesperson, LA has no relationship with them and has never reviewed the technical accuracy of their work.

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