Why Every Smart City Needs A (Data) Rodeo

Through the City of Austin’s efforts to win the U.S. DOT Smart City Challenge Grant, researchers at The University of Texas at Austin built the concept of a Data Rodeo – a collection of Central Texas data and analysis tools that will be curated by the university. The idea is not to have a massive data warehouse or to create yet another data portal, but to synthesize all of the existing local portals and data sets in a way that will be useful for local transportation agencies and practitioners. The university is well-suited to serve in the pivotal role as curator due to its status as a neutral and objective party with tremendous expertise in the areas of transportation and technology.

So, what exactly is a Data Rodeo? A rodeo is typically defined as a “public exhibition of cowboy skills,” or a “roundup of cattle.” Replace “cowboy skills” and “cattle” with “data and analysis tools” and you get the Data Rodeo.

*Think swapping cows for data is odd? Check out Twitter’s OpenDataTaylorSwift:

Why is a Data Rodeo needed? The number of public-private partnerships (PPP) surrounding transportation data are very likely to increase over time and cities are not currently equipped to take on the role of aggregating and packaging this data to meet their day-to-day needs. One example of a transportation data PPP is Waze’s Connected Citizens program, which offers its data on traffic conditions in exchange for information on planned work zones. And, very recently, Uber created Uber Movement to provide travel time data in exchange for some much-needed goodwill. As the number of potential partnerships expand, it is easy to imagine a city staff overwhelmed by the data offered to them. The myriad of data providers necessitates an entity to package the data in a useful way.

Packaging the data, for the Data Rodeo, means aligning the incoming data with the mission of city transportation departments. Despite smart city hype, the mission hasn’t changed from providing safe, efficient, and equitable transportation systems. Packaging the data will be as much about what data we don’t have as it is about what data we do have. One goal will be finding the gaps in data provided to help cities achieve equity in the services they provide. For example, Waze data will be the densest in areas where more people are using the Waze app. Uber Movement data will provide the most value in areas heavily trafficked by Uber drivers. Data from a cellular company will be the most reliable in areas where people use that cellular carrier. Ignoring gaps in data can mean ignoring the mobility needs of entire communities. The good news is that if we know where there are gaps, cities can focus their own data collection efforts on filling the gaps, thereby potentially reducing their overall data collection costs.

So, is the Data Rodeo finished? Nope. The Data Rodeo may never be finished. As the available data changes and our understanding of transportation systems evolves, so must the Data Rodeo. For now, we are working on successes with the City of Austin that can then be translated to other cities. These successes include harnessing the data needed to inform the City’s first smart corridor, enabling enhanced active transportation planning in the region, and engaging the community through outreach events corresponding with pushes of data to the public realm (stay tuned for an announcement of a March 4th event!). A key to success is information sharing with other cities around the nation and around the world, so if we haven’t met and you’re working on your own Rodeo or want to join ours, please write me!

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