By: Genna Gores on August 3rd, 2017

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How Big Data Builds New Forms of Civic Engagement in Your Community

Big Data | Smart Cities | Transportation

In my hometown of San Francisco, California I grew up riding the municipal bus home from school with a group of classmates. As a group, we saw the San Francisco Municipal Agency (SFMTA) try a multitude of strategies to make the system more efficient and cost-effective. For example, SFMTA transformed car lanes into dedicated bus rapid transit (BRT) lanes to increase the fleet’s speed. When many of these decisions were made, most of my bus crew was under the voting age, and as teenagers, public forums were not an exciting Friday night activity.

I remember that we complained almost every day about how slow or inefficient the bus was, yet we never did anything to try to fix public transit. We never participated in the public forums or in outreach programs that gathered feedback on BRT. Now, as BRT expands, huge changes are happening to the system that affect my current commute. However, at the same time as SFMTA was inviting the public to share their feedback, I bought a smartphone. To the dismay of my parents, I used that smartphone constantly. Now imagine if my teenage obsession had allowed me to be a more active participant in decisions like the BRT, simply because SFMTA could use the location data created by my phone to develop their future plans.



A San Francisco Muni bus drives in the dedicated BRT lane.

My smartphone habits are not unique. Technology is rapidly changing our world and how we interact with one another. With websites and apps such as Facebook, Snapchat, various dating and eRetail apps becoming more commonplace, the way we interact with each other and our community is drastically shifting—and governments need to shift their public engagement approaches accordingly.

This is where Big Data comes in. By Big Data, I mean the location data created by connected cars and trucks, smartphones, and wearables. So, imagine a world where this data that we create every day helps us be more engaged citizens without having to actually do anything. With schedules getting busier, and traffic in the US only getting worse, it seems like the barriers to enter and participate in government planning are only getting higher and more complicated. Currently there are 2.5 quintillion bytes of data created daily, so why not use this data to make transportation planning better?


Why Social Media Isn’t the Fix for Our Political System

As a millennial and an avid social media user, it feels like the minute a local election, a community problem, or major local decision occurs my newsfeed is bombarded by people sharing their opinions or promoting civic engagement— with civic engagement defined as working to improve a community’s quality of life via the political process.” My feeds are now more like a daily newspaper rather than a source of vacation photos and puppy videos. In many ways, it appears that communities—like the friends that populate my newsfeed—are becoming more aware and civically engaged via social media, but this is fallacious façade. In reality, social media is generally a shallow form of engagement. From what I’ve seen, public engagement meetings for planning projects have as low of a turnout as ever.

Social Media.png

The growth of social media websites and applications, like those pictured above, can actually establish false senses of civic engagement.

In fact, there are some critical issues with social media sites that actually hinder civic engagement rather than help it:

  1. Slacktivism
    One of the common problems in political activism, which came about with the internet age, is Slacktivism: political actions taken via the internet that require minimal work or involvement, i.e. posting an article or signing a petition. This promotes the feeling of civic engagement, but rarely makes a huge impact on your community.
  1. Amplifying Those Who Already Speak Up
    Social media provides a quick and simple platform at our fingertips to share our every thought, concern, and idea. According to an article put out by the Pew Center, those who take advantage of social media to share their political ideas are the politically engaged, the naysayers, and the NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) crowd—not the people who are typically uninterested in government.
  1. Fake and Inaccurate News
    We saw in the 2016 election that fake and inaccurate news is a very real and scary problem. Everyone, from those who aren’t politically involved to political nerds, is susceptible to the trap of viral and incorrect information. Now, it is becoming more and more difficult to discern between unbiased facts and complete lies. In the internet age, how do politicians know that the civically engaged – the folks that are showing up at the meetings and filling out surveys - are basing their responses on facts and not fiction?

Ultimately, social media can even discourage the direct civic engagement that gives citizens the power to guide new policy– especially for the less-flashy decisions made to manage transportation. While casual political debates are very important, voicing an opinion on a comment thread does not mean that the concern or complaint will ever be heard by a policymaker. It can lead to people mistaking a Facebook status or watching a video as civic engagement, but these actions do not necessarily provide government agencies with the data and viewpoints needed to make comprehensive decisions.


So How Do We Change This?

Now this is where Big Data is key. Big Data is a huge and new asset to the political sphere, especially in transportation planning. Voter turnout and community engagement is not getting better in the United States, so how can community leaders receive vital viewpoints without having to beg voters to come to the polls, attend open forums, or participate in surveys? The answer to this question is to use the data and information that already exists.


California Example

Imagine you’re a policymaker in California and you want to create a bill that adds four new rail lines between the Silicon Valley and San Francisco. You want to make sure your constituents have a say, so you send out surveys to the community to get opinions on the potential changes. You’ve hit a roadblock, though. Survey response rates are very low – for example, the recent Caltrans travel survey had a response rate of less than 1% in some counties and the highest response rate was only 14.8% from Kern County. Also, Caltrans only reached out to 5.3% of Californians, which is a very small sample of the state’s massive population. In addition, certain segments of the population (like retirees) are far more likely to respond to surveys than others, leading to biased samples. Beyond low response rates, this traditional data collection method is also expensive and tedious. This bill is very important to you, so how do you capture more citizens’ opinions on these new rail lines?


The Beauty of Big Data

Luckily, mobile device use is increasing in the US, which can help constituents share their "opinions" on new policy with little to no effort. More and more people are choosing to use apps that use Location-Based Services such as dating apps, bus trackers, weather apps, etc., and they opt-in to creating the type of location data that are ideal for transportation planning.

Using data from Pew Research, I calculated that approximately 77% of California’s population uses smartphones, which is far better than the best Caltrans survey’s best response rate of 14.8%. In addition, Pew found that smartphone ownership has quite equitable distribution across income groups. By using Big Data, you can access over three quarters of the Californian’s anonymized daily activity data, which provides the mobility information you need to plan major changes in your community. Also, this source is more accurate for transportation planning because it’s automatically and passively collected – fake news and social media can’t skew hard data.


What Are Other Ways that Big Data Can Help Your Community?

We can create a more civically engaged community by using mobility data that we create every day. With Big Data, planners can easily access information on citizens’ experiences and needs, which means if you can’t miss work to go to a public forum or don’t have time to complete a survey, you no longer have to worry about your voice getting lost in the crowd. By overcoming the challenges of traditional data collection tools, government agencies can make even more comprehensive and holistic decisions around transportation planning. If planners adopt Big Data, your opinions will make it onto your government’s radar when you go about your daily routine. Big Data makes it so many many more voices are heard.

Smartphones are only becoming more common, so why not utilize them to make our political sector more equitable and accessible to all populations and communities? In a world full of fake news, Big Data only depends on the truest facts: real life. It’s time for government agencies to stop making poor decisions based on estimated data. Now your government officials can understand what your community needs the most from its transportation system without you doing any extra work.

Curious to see how Big Data will fit into your planning agency's process? Download our free report and see how it can help improve your city’s decision making.


Genna Gores, a native San Franciscan, is a summer intern at StreetLight Data. Genna is a rising senior at Scripps College, where she is pursuing a multidisciplinary degree in Environmental Science, Economics, and Politics.


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