3 Creative Ways To Visualize Urban Public Transportation

The Urban Data Challenge asked teams to make something beautiful and helpful from open data sets in San Francisco, Zurich, and Geneva. The results will change what you think a city’s transportation system can look like (and how useful it can be).

As cities gradually realize that opening up their data isn’t dangerous, we’re starting to see creative applications for the information that not too long ago was siloed off by government agencies. The Urban Data Challenge (where I was a judge), asked entrants to use open transportation data sets from three cities–San Francisco, Zurich, and Geneva–to create beautiful and insightful visualizations.

These were the three winners of the competition, put on by Swissnex, the Grey Area Foundation for the Arts, LIFT, and others.

This project, which won the grand prize ($5,000 from Fusepool to develop an app), was the most entertaining entry of the bunch. It’s hard to see in the image below–you really have to check out the full experience here–but Dots on the Bus lets users select a date, time of day, and a bus line in the three cities (San Francisco, Zurich, Geneva) to see what the transportation situation looks like. Watch for a couple minutes and you’ll be hypnotized by the cartoon buses spitting out dots (representing people) at each spot.

There are a lot of data sets behind this visualization, including bus timing, the number of people who get on and off at each stop as determined by on-board lasers, and the location of each stop and route.

My personal favorite project, Transit Quality and Equity, took home one of two second-place prizes (a pair of round-trip tickets to SF or Switzerland). The project mashes up transit density data with the poverty level in different parts of the city, making it easy to see whether impoverished neighborhoods are well-served by buses and trains. This is not only informative for the general public, it’s something that could be used by local governments to measure transit effectiveness.

Unfortunately, the project creators weren’t able to get poverty data from Zurich, but you can check out the other two cities here.

You can think of the Frustration Index, another second-place prize winner, as a Walk Score for transit. Instead of simply reporting on individual aspects of the transit situation (capacity, delays, speed) in different parts of cities, the Frustration Index uses some complex calculations to figure out how frustrating public transportation is at any given time in a neighborhood.

Much like Walk Score, new citygoers might use the tool to scope out how good public transportation is near a prospective new home. But while Walk Score only looks at, say, how many bus lines are nearby, the Frustration Index can tell users whether those lines are crowded, slow, or late during rush hour.

See all the other winners and honorable mentions on the Urban Data Challenge site.