By: Laura Schewel on July 15th, 2015

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What Is Big Data and Why Should You Care?


What do we mean when we say “Big Data”?

For Transportation and Urban Planning, the phrase “Big Data” can mean a variety of things. Today, we’re talking about Big Data that is gathered from hundreds of millions of mobile devices across the US, such as smart phones, connected cars, and wearables, and that are used to measure mobility patterns. Using Massive Mobile Data Analytic techniques, the anonymous, archival, and messy data from these devices can be turned into useful information and answers to questions . These analytics describe the transportation patterns of groups of people.

How does Big Data help Transportation Planning?

When you’re making a major decision about policy or infrastructure that affects multitudes of people it’s important to get it right. As a result, professionals today spend significant amount of time and money to collect information about or model transportation patterns.

The current methods of collecting this important data are costly and time intensive. Furthermore, they don’t easily fulfill three goals for ideal data for transportation planning:

    1. Accurately describe current mobility patterns,
    2. Persistently measure changes over time, and
    3. Diagnose problems and predict changes in the future.

Surveys are often inaccurate because people don’t accurately report or remember their actions. It’s also hard to get a response from a representative sample in the relevant area due to lack or time or lack of interest, which can lead to skewed results. Gravity Models often rely on assumptions which may be incorrect, or not reflect up-to-date patterns. In addition, if these models are not calibrated correctly the output can be hard to use. Bad data in leads to bad data out.

Sensors often create very accurate measurements where they’re installed, but it’s very expensive to expand the sensor footprint to a broad area, and maintain the hardware. Plus, sensors can’t measure certain patterns like route choice over longer stretches. These approaches all produce an incomplete, possibly inaccurate understanding of the status quo. Plus, repeating data collection over time with these approaches can be too expensive. The history of rarely measuring transportation patterns (not “updating” data often) is a particular gap, because it means that we have a very hard time understanding if a particular new policy or bus route or toll price actually had the impact planners intended. If we don’t know what works well, we can’t make sure to focus on best practices in future projects. StreetLight has worked hard to fill in the missing data gaps for transportation planners with Big Data resources that accurately describe patterns today, can measure changes over time, and dig in deep to diagnose problems.

Why it matters to YOU:

Big Data allows you to measure things you previously couldn’t measure with other approaches (or things that would have been too expensive with other approaches).For example, Big Data gives you the ability to scan an entire state for transportation patterns in a matter of minutes, or compare patterns across 2000 road segments.

It also allows you to speed up the process and create less expensive paths to success. Instead of spending years collecting survey results or installing sensors you can have access to insightful data in a matter of minutes.

Big Data allows you to repeat the same analytics month after month to see changes over time, to understand how people react to new policies (did it work as expected?) or new assets (what type of people are using this toll?) as well as things like weather and special events.

In short, Big Data can help the planning community push towards an empirical, ongoing measurement mindset as opposed to a modeled, spot measurement mindset, which currently takes too much time and money and delivers incomplete results.

Big Data and Smart Cities

There’s a huge amount of excitement and discussion about “Smart Cities” these days, but it’s not always clear exactly what a “Smart City” is, and what particular programs and technology should be put in place in a Smart City. But, most people agree that Big Data probably has something to do with it.

Using Big Data to support transportation and urban planning is a proven, concrete way to make that “Smart City” concept real, and save citizens and agencies time and money. We’ve worked on dozens of projects that demonstrate the “Smart City” paradigm throughout the US.

Let us work with you to create a creating a smart and sustainable transportation future. Contact us below to get started.


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