Cambridge data challenge invites residents to design a safer city

A cyclist travels down Beacon Street in Somerville. (Photo: Wendy Maeda/Globe staff)
A cyclist travels down Beacon Street in Somerville. (Photo: Wendy Maeda/Globe staff)

The City of Cambridge is calling on citizens to help identify accident-prone intersections, chart safe paths for kids to bike to school, and flag policy issues that need attention as part of the first ever Street Safety Challenge.

The contest opens Friday and Cantabrigians are invited to examine a comprehensive data set of 6,500 road accidents in the city over the last three years, and then share their views or experiences with the city through charts, interactive apps, essays, or performance art pieces. 

The challenge is run by the Open Data Discourse group, and sponsored by the city, Microsoft, and a handful of departments at MIT.

Cities in Greater Boston are among several American urban centers, including Chicago and New York City, that are hosting public data about on government websites. But civic planners see a gap between having the data and making use of it.

“We’re trying to stoke a fire under that process,” said Carey Anne Nadeau, a Cambridge resident who founded Open Data Discourse. The Street Safety Challenge is the first of many civic engagement competitions that Nadeau hopes to launch.

“It’s a large dataset, but nothing approaching quote-unquote big data — that makes it accessible to a broader swath of people,” said Nadeau.

According to City of Cambridge records, the number of bikes joining peak rush hour traffic tripled between 2002 and 2012, and by 2011, an estimated 10 percent of city residents bike to work.

While applications like Google Maps find the quickest route between destinations, there there isn’t one that could suggest an easy route for beginner bikers, for example, or the safest route for kids biking to school.

Nadeau said people can draw on the data set, but also add to it. “If you’ve experienced a traffic accident yourself, if you’ve hit a pedestrian, your personal experiences can be added on to the data set,” she said.

To invite maximum participation, the final product can take a variety of forms: performance art pieces, essays, or paintings will all be accepted in addition to the usual web-based applications. The goal is to draw in citizens who may not traditionally engage in data, either because of their professional background or age.

“Hackathons around data weren’t really inviting to me,” Nadeau, who has a background in the statistics of urban poverty, said. “But certainly my skills would be relevant in an event like this. I would participate in this challenge.”

Judges will include City Councilor Nadeem Mazen, Dan O’Brien, research director at the Boston Area Research Initiative, Holly St. Clair, director of data services at the Massachusetts Area Planning Council, and this reporter, from BetaBoston.

The deadline for submissions is Dec. 30, and winners will be announced on Jan. 9.

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about science and research. Email her at nidhi.subbaraman@globe.com.
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