Thanks to Nate Silver, the results of Tuesday’s elections are being widely viewed as an affirmation of data wonkery, proof that non-ideological number crunching leads to solid analysis of real-time situations. But the question remains: How do we get more of this good data? Not just about politics, but about the real-world problems that politics are supposed to solve?
Those are the kinds of questions that preoccupy people like Aurash Khawarzad, a New York-based urban planner with his own studio, Change Administration, and Ted Ullrich, an engineer and industrial designer at Tomorrow Lab. Together, they've come up with a lightweight, inexpensive solution for one of the most pressing data-collection needs in the urban portfolio: traffic frequency and speed. (Full disclosure: Khawarzad is a former co-worker of mine.)
The little orange gizmo with a tube attached is called TrafficCOM (that’s COM for “community” and “computer”), and it allows users to measure the volume, rate, and speed of traffic on any street, then upload the data for immediate sharing.
Khawarzad says he and Ullrich began developing TrafficCOM on a recent trip to Moscow, where sustainable transportation advocates had invited them to help figure out where that traffic-choked city could put bike lanes. Khawarzad says he realized that they needed solid data on traffic conditions to begin making recommendations, and the project began evolving from there. They received key support, in the form of a small stipend and some feedback, after being invited to participate in the recent San Franscisco Urban Prototyping Festival.
Here’s how it works: You can buy a TrafficCOM device for $139 (traditional traffic-counting devices cost about a thousand bucks). That gets you a pre-assembled device that is ready to use out of the box. Follow instructions about where to set it up, and you can be counting traffic right away. When you’re done, connect to your computer with a USB cable and upload the data, which will be mapped on the TrafficCOM site.
That data is then accessible to anyone who wants to use it, a key feature in the minds of TrafficCOM's creators. Khawarzad thinks his device will be useful for community groups, neighborhood associations, and advocacy organizations who are concerned about the impact of traffic on their streets and want to pursue solutions, but who have been frustrated by the impenetrability of the processes surrounding traffic planning.
“We see it as a tool for collaborating between government, communities, and businesses,” he says. “Right now, it’s a very closed process of getting transportation information. We’d love to see an agency put these into the hands of the community and use it to plan together.”
Khawarzad and Ullrich make TrafficCOM units from off-the-shelf materials and produce them at Tomorrow Lab’s Manhattan location. Simplicity and scalability is part of the point, says Khawarzad (they even have put together a Google doc that gives you the information you need to make your own, if you’re so inclined).
“There’s been a lot of conversation about smart cities, and it’s all focused on these big systems that people don’t have access to,” says Khawarzad. “This is something that people can access and make use of right away.”