Urban planning and open information

I attended Transportation Camp West in San Francisco as an interested and somewhat informed observer.


Transpo Camp sesssions

OpenPlans — they’re the people who initially funded Streetsblog — organized this unconference to bring disparate innovators together to explore the possibilities that current technologies and data sharing philosophies can bring to urban transportation planning.

Information wants to be free

Jay Nath opened Saturday’s conference talking about the importance of citizen participation in collaborative planning. His mission as Director of Innovation for the City & County of San Francisco is working toward standardizing and opening all non-confidential publicly-owned data.

Nash’s open data philosophy stands in sharp contrast to the status quo in most local and state governments. They own huge datasets that the public has already paid for, then charge private individuals again when they request this data. This lack of access and proprietary data formats hinders innovation, innovation that can help public agencies to serve their constituencies while also lowering their costs in providing these services.

Nash’s message to the audience: “Push your elected officials and let them know open data is important. Ask your representatives in city governments to show up these kinds of conferences.”

Case Study: San Luis Obispo GIS

Michael Mottman with the San Luis Obispo Council of Governments (SLOCOG, the planning organization for SLO County), has been transcribing bike facility project geographical data into a central county database. The county has something like $100 million on their bike facility wishlist, but only $4 million to allocate toward these projects. Mottman wanted suggestions on how to present this data to the public to (1) determine how to prioritize the money and (2) gauge interest in a possible transportation tax for the county to fund these and other these transpo projects. In other words, what tools are available to help with project visualizations, to convert raw geographical data into human understandable drawings?

Damien Newton

Several people gave suggestions on specific software products they use to convert GIS shapefiles, but I told Mottman that the county should make the data available for free download and let SLO Bike members know it’s there so the cycling advocates can do the advocacy and let the public servants do their job more effectively.

In 2003 I wrote a rudimentary bike routing application for Boulder County, Colorado. The county itself makes GIS shapefiles available for free download, but at the time all Boulder County cities charged for their bike path data, so I gave up on the project. Two years later, the city of Boulder spent $150,000 to develop their own bike routing application that only works within the city of Boulder. They could’ve had a county-wide app for free from me if only the data was free!

At the risk of snubbing some people…

I have much more to write, but in the meantime here’s a shoutout to the people I met at Transportation Conference West: Damien Newton of Streetsblog LA, Matt Nelson of California Streets, Steve Vance from Chicago, Claire Fliesler the Santa Cruz Metro intern who says she sees me on the bus all the time, Stephen Villavaso of the LA County Bike Coalition, Robin Urban Smith of Streetfilms, Tom Ayres of the East Bay Bicycle Coalition, Alison Cantor of Cascade Bicycle Coalition, Chris Smith with his Transit Appliance, Googler Erick Fischer who does those ultra cool Flickr visualizations and Andrew Casteel who’s working to “gamify public transit.”

Robin the videographer

Greetings to the swarms of engineers from Google who attended (and thanks for lunch as well!), Bing / Microsoft mapping product manager Maryam Gholami, Ian White (CEO of Urban Mapping) and Steven Coast (founder of the OpenStreetMap project and whose current project is Transit RSS, an effort to build an open transit specification so developers, agencies, and users can all use a common dataset for real time transit information. There’s much interest in this — currently, every agency has their poorly documented proprietary data formats that consumers (e.g. mobile apps that display train arrival times) must reverse engineer and then convert.

Hello also to familiar Bay Area bike people Jym Dyer and Carlos Babcock. Thank you especially to Tom for the shared ride to San Francisco.

Finally, howdy to Sabrina Merlo of OpenPlans who took and posted my photo to the Transportation Camp website.