Cycling for the Public Good

The next time you ride your bicycle around town, you may be providing a public service.

Wired magazine recently posted an article about the use of private sector data to power public sector service delivery improvements. According to the piece, the Oregon Department of Transportation is buying data from the cycling and running social media app Strava in order to better understand cycling traffic flows. The ultimate goal? To provide better road infrastructure and safety features for cyclists and non-motorized transport devices.

The service, Strava Metro, is offered to state and local agencies for $20,000 per year, and provides aggregated data from among the 2.5 million rides uploaded every week to the app by its users.

While this seems expensive, the Oregon DOT claims that the alternative is far more costly – and much less effective. Most of its existing techniques are manual, such as installing video cameras or having an employee sit at an intersection and count cyclists. Worse still, these methods often provide ‘moment in time and space’ snapshots, whereas the Strava data can provide a more comprehensive picture, such as where cyclists slow down along a route, when they move from the street to the sidewalk – or even which streets they avoid entirely.

Here’s a specific example from the article:

In another case, the DOT installed rumble strips on Highway 26 near Mount Hood. The strips are a great way to help drivers avoid running off the road, particularly at night, but they’re a nightmare for cyclists. Strava data revealed where cyclists were getting off the highway and where they were getting back on, possibly to avoid the rumble strips. At those spots, planners could consider alternative, more cyclist-friendly safety options, like signs and lights.

This case isn’t the first time government agencies have turned to apps and the public to help them do their jobs better. Recently, we wrote about the Federal Communications Commision’s Speed Test app, which essentially crowd-sources the collection of data on our nation’s consumer broadband networks. Users download the app and let it run occasional tests in the background, which – after scrubbing the data of personally identifiable information – gets uploaded back to the FCC. And just like the Strava Metro data, this approach saves time, money and is far more effective than the manual alternative.

The difference is that the FCC built its own app, while consumers of Strava Metro are sourcing their data from the private sector.

In many ways, the public sector’s consumption of Strava data is a triumph of public-private partnership. After all, Strava is powered by GPS technology, which was originally developed by the U.S. Department of Defense during the 1960s. In 1983, GPS data was released to the public, which is now powering some of the most successful consumer navigation services (Google Maps). The Strava example is simply another step in this evolutionary process: taking an existing product or service and adding additional functionality, which then creates a new market for that feature.

It’s also very similar to what happens in the private sector. The difference this time is that the government is at the center of the equation – both as a feeder and consumer in this innovative process.

With tight budgets and increasing demands for service, Strava Metro could provide a glimpse into the future of public sector data-driven innovation.

Of course, this ‘virtuous cycle’ relies on the government catalyzing the process through the opening up of its data to the public. Last year’s Executive Order by President Obama embodies this trend.

But what do you think? Should agencies consider buying data from the private sector to better deliver services to the public? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below.

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