Civic Tech

The Future of Coworking in NYC — From Microsoft to Beyond

As real-estate prices in urban centers continue to climb across the nation, companies like WeWork have stepped in to offer start-ups, non-profits, and other ventures affordable co-working spaces. However, a number of groups have reimagined coworking spaces as more than just an efficient solution to expensive city office space. Organizations like Civic Hall, Prime Produce, and Cornell Tech have embraced coworking spaces as a means through which distinct organizations can achieve beyond their individual capacities. From co-ops to accelerators, collaboration spaces have started to focus on strategically selecting companies with a shared value set, development phase, or industry focus. Building a community of similarly oriented ventures across sectors and functions allows for both informal and formal collaborations that amplify each organization’s effectiveness and reach.

One such co-working space, Civic Hall, has an application process and requires that its members be working on projects related to civic technology. A core tenet of the space is that no endeavor can succeed without at least some degree of cross-sector collaboration. The diverse set of members at Civic Hall, from Microsoft to small start-ups, mingle at weekly lunch events on civic tech related topics, network over coffee in the shared kitchen, and ultimately leverage one another’s unique skill-set and talents.

Other coworking spaces are more focused on members having a shared process or phase of development. For example, Prime Produce, a co-op that describes itself as a “guild for social good,” is committed to serving as a shared working environment and community for organizations focused on decelerating their growth trajectory to focus on supply-chain, process, and quality. By working with a diverse set of companies, the team at Prime Produce hopes they will identify shareable insights and a consistent framework for both their members and non-members.

The insights on collaboration that places like Prime Produce and Civic Hall are working to codify are already being embraced by larger institutions. The much awaited Cornell Tech campus on Roosevelt Island, for example, is designed to intentionally foster run-ins between researchers, students, and industry leaders. One campus center is made of two separate wings, one for students and one for researchers, connected by a giant glass bridge that serves as a cafeteria and shared space. A lead designer on the project, Michael Manfredi, explains, “it’s about making connections between someone who might be working at Microsoft and some doctoral student who is working on ways of assembling information.”

In each case, coworking spaces, have begun to shift from a reaction to the realities of city-living to intentional forums where the whole is truly greater than the sum of its parts! We can’t wait to see how coworking develops and expands in the future.

Fulfilling the Promise of Open Data through Data Literacy Training

In June, the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership (NNIP) at the Urban Institute and Microsoft released a collection of resources and recommendations on extending and expanding training opportunities for staff at civic organizations and governments to help them leverage data and technology to tackle local priorities.  To illustrate the foundations, learnings, and impacts that informed the NNIP study, we are delighted to have NNIP partners from around the U.S. sharing their experiences in developing and operating their local training programs in a series of guest blogs.  Below is one of these experiences. Other posts in this series are available from the Urban Institute and the DetroitOakland, and Seattle partner organizations.

— Elizabeth Grossman, Director of Civic Projects, Microsoft

Working together, the Western Pennsylvania Regional Data Center (WPRDC) and the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh (CLP) have discovered that providing data and technology training to Pittsburgh-area residents advances our common interests in supporting resident learning, informed decision making, and community engagement. Our two organizations have complementary missions. WPRDC maintains Allegheny County and the City of Pittsburgh’s open data portal, provides services to help with publishing and using data, and organizes events to connect publishers and users. CLP launched a major initiative last year focusing on open data, data literacy, and the ways that data might inform sound decision making.

Motivators for the Training

When participants at a 2016 WPRDC User Group meeting asked for more support around using data on the website, the opportunity to partner on data and technology training became clear. Together we designed Data 101 — an introductory series of workshops designed to increase data literacy regardless of past experience.

Hosting Data 101 was an ideal opportunity for the library to reinforce core data concepts and help residents overcome the barriers to using open data. Open data only becomes public data when other critical elements are in place, such as equitable access to technology, opportunities for learning, and community relationships. Public libraries are well positioned to connect people to these pieces that are often missing.

How Training Has Impacted Participants’ Community Work

Data 101 participants came from a variety of organizations, including city and county government staff, foundation program officers, non-profit staff, students and library system staff.  The CLP lead for Digitization and Special Projects was one of ten Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh participants. She attended to learn more about how data could intersect with her life, both personally and professionally. “I am a visual learner and [as a result of attending Data 101] I’ve found myself actually creating data visualizations to better understand data I’ve either accumulated or been given. The best thing I took away from the series is identifying what data is and how it can tell a story.”

The non-profit staff were often looking for support in grant writing, service outreach, and program evaluation. One grant writer from a local community center first came to the training at the request of her organization’s CEO. She found herself dealing with data often — presenting them to managers, directors and funders — but wasn’t confident about her technical skills. She attended all 4 of the workshops in the initial series and learned to think about how to present and explain data in new ways. Because of the trainings, she has used her new skills to help her organization focus their efforts geographically by identifying municipalities with lower income and higher unemployment rates and also which of their partner agencies served those areas. This helped her organization target career development services where it was needed most.

“I liked that the series encouraged everyone to think about the concepts of visualizing data, before learning about the tools that are available. These activities also gave us opportunities to work with others and share ideas, rather than just working separately on laptops. As a result, I learned how others use data in their jobs, from those who work directly with clients, and record data points, to those looking at the big picture with data to make programming decisions.”

New Toolkit to Share Lessons and Empower More Libraries to Train

We keep trying new things and learning along the way. We discovered quickly that it is better to teach concepts separately from tools. We have taught concepts with paper-based activities so we can democratize the workshop, allowing all participants to participate equally regardless of their technical skills. Using paper also allows participants to work together more easily, making our workshops highly collaborative. While the series was designed for people starting at the very beginning, more advanced users also found the interactive format appealing and learned something new.

We will be finalizing a Toolkit for Public Librarians later this summer — which will offer a variety of training activities that public librarians can use in their own work around data literacy. We tested an early version of the toolkit at a National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership (NNIP) meeting to get feedback from other practitioners who may want to facilitate similar trainings in their communities. The NNIP network and its training catalog help nurture, develop, and propagate structures and trainings — such as Data 101 — that ultimately help ensure data are used in service of communities. We encourage all organizations, especially public libraries and open data providers, to consider providing local data and technology training and joining us in this cause.

About the Authors

Elizabeth Monk (Liz) is a Research Specialist at the University of Pittsburgh Center for Social and Urban Research where she manages the Southwestern Pennsylvania Community Profiles and contributes to the Western Pennsylvania Regional Data Center. Liz also contributes to University research reports and community outreach.  

Eleanor Tutt is the open data and knowledge manager at Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. By opening library data, connecting library measures to community impacts, and supporting residents as they build their skills and confidence using data in the civic realm, she hopes to contribute to a more equitable and accessible open data space. Eleanor joined the public library world after serving as a data analyst and mapmaker for a regional community development nonprofit in St. Louis.

Meet the Eight Data Science Summer School (DS3) Students!

This time last summer, I was part of Microsoft’s Data Science Summer School (DS3) and now I have the pleasure of introducing you to this summer’s incoming class. This is the fourth annual class of the DS3 program, which is an intense eight-week journey into the wild world of data science that culminates in students writing an original research paper. Keep reading to learn more about them!

Read more >

Fellow Profile: Aasha Shaik

Where are you from? Plainsboro, New Jersey (in Central Jersey, near Princeton!)

School/grad year/major: I just finished my first year at Rutgers University, so I will be graduating in May of 2020. I am majoring in Political Science, Business Analytics & Information Technology, and Middle Eastern Studies, with a possible minor in International & Global Studies.

Last thing you searched on Bing: NJ Transit train schedule (boring, I know)

Why did you choose Microsoft’s fellowship program? I have done gender equality advocacy work at the United Nations since my junior year of high school, and I actually met John Paul Farmer at a UN event I was asked to speak at back in September during the opening week of the UN General Assembly. He is the one who told me about the team and the fellowship, and it immediately interested me because most of my experience has been on the political science/international affairs side of things until now — so this seemed like an amazing opportunity to explore a multi-disciplinary field that intersects with both business and politics. Most important to me, it has a very real impact on communities.

What’s your favorite civic project in the New York area? I admire HeatSeek NYC a lot because it does important work that addresses a lot of overlooked groups of people who need it, and has a tangible effect in terms of aiding related legal work. Although not all strictly civic tech, I’m also a fan of the work that Elizabeth Demaray does; I did a winter course on STEAM (intersection of STEM and art) and we met with Elizabeth about her work. It includes the Hand Up Project, which involves 3D printing shells for crabs who are running out of natural homes. We also did a workshop relating to her upcoming Manhattan Tundra project, which has to do with the use of rooftops in NYC — I know there are other groups working on the idea as well, and I think the concept as a whole has an immense amount of potential. Many parts of the STEAM movement as a whole seem to overlap with civic tech.

Who is your civic tech mentor/idol? I work under John and Matt Stempeck, and I honestly would not have known very much about civic tech as a field at all if not for meeting John at that UN event. Now that I have joined the team, both of them have been amazing at helping introduce me to the civic tech space, and are also super inspiring with the work they do both within and outside of the team!

What projects are you working on for your position as tech fellow for Microsoft New York? So far I’ve been updating data on, specifically researching more international entities. For the new projects we are working on this summer, we have decided to focus on two areas: the environment and women’s empowerment/gender inequality. Both are extremely relevant and critical given current events and are personally really important to me, especially women’s empowerment. I’m very excited to see where we can take them!

What excites you about civic tech? The immense amount of impact it can have, and the dedication of the people involved in the space to serving people and furthering good.

What’s one problem you hope civic tech will solve for cities? Definitely greater accountability of public officials, whether it be the police or government. As a whole, I hope it will help empower traditionally marginalized communities, whether through that accountability or access to tools and resources.

Looking Ahead to Personal Democracy Forum, June 8-9, 2017

As we gear up for #PDF17, we thought it would be a great time to revisit some of the highlights from last year’s Personal Democracy Forum! For background, the Personal Democracy Forum (PDF) is an annual conference that began in 2004. The conference aims to bring technologists, campaigners, hackers, journalists, academics, activists, and more together to focus on solving society’s biggest problems.

Last year, in the heat of the 2016 election, panels and workshops covered everything from “Government as a Digital Service” to how technology was being used by peer-to-peer organizing networks to support female candidates for office. A highlight of the event was the launch of Civic Hall Labs, the non-profit R&D branch of NYC’s Civic Hall, a center for civic tech innovation.

Get ready for PDF 2017 by watching a few of the talks below and be sure to take a look at the exciting line-up for this year’s conference, June 8-9.

Comedienne Luna Malbroux discusses her app and  how humor is a critical way to to broach heavy topics.

Jason Mogus, principal strategis at Communicopia explains “How Advocacy Campaign are Won in the 21st Century”

danah boyd of Microsoft Research cautions against the risks of bad coding from an environmental and social justice perspective

Follow along for updates from this year’s conference and join the conversation on social media using #PDF17 and @CivicHall.

Register for Personal Democracy Forum 2017 here.

Bringing Street Safety to the Next Frontier of Smart Cities

In Microsoft’s Civic Tech Engagement group, we partner with civic organizations and governments not only to create new ways to leverage data and technology to tackle local priorities but also to sustain and scale those innovations across cities and communities. Therefore, we are thrilled to announce that we are partnering with Open Data Nation to lay the groundwork on innovative approaches to applying data science to transportation safety. Open Data Nation will build on the collaborative experimentation of DataKind, Seattle, New York, New Orleans and Microsoft to empower more cities to integrate data science into their Vision Zero programs. We welcome the CEO of Open Data Nation, Carey Anne Nadeau, as a guest blogger to articulate the opportunity and approach for this partnership.  

— Elizabeth Grossman, Director of Civic Projects, Microsoft

Smart city technologies and data science techniques are making incredible and swift leaps forward – from smart sensors that detect smog to analytics that guide efficient water use in times of drought – but in this figurative race to the moon, select cities have been able to get projects off the ground while most others are stranded back on earth.

In a first-of-its-kind partnership between Microsoft and Open Data Nation, we’re tackling this inequity head on, lowering the barriers to entry, and making sure that the benefits of the smart cities movement diffuse to all who may share in and benefit from better, safer, and healthier cities.

We’ve identified a big issue in cities, where a broad-based, adaptable solution can have great impact. In 2016, the number of people who died in a car crash spiked to nearly 18,000, the most since 2008. From Fort Lauderdale to Seattle, at least 40 US cities have recognized that traffic crashes are putting bicyclists, pedestrians and drivers at risk in their communities. And, mayors in each city have signed on to the Vision Zero Initiative, pledging to reduce the number of traffic deaths to zero.

While a common goal to prevent injuries and save lives is clearly articulated, the Vision Zero Initiative is not prescriptive, and each of the 40 cities has taken its own unique approach to traffic safety planning. For example, the three cities that worked with DataKind and Microsoft applied data science techniques to local priorities, identifying factors that contribute to incidents, prioritizing investments, and tracking the impact of interventions (Read more about these three cities in the case study here and many more here).

Over the course of 2017, Open Data Nation will build from these early examples to guide the next frontier of Vision Zero cities to explore a data science approach. First, we’ll work with interested cities to advise them on what data is useful and how to prepare for data analysis. Then, we’ll work with three select cities to build models that predict where and when people are in the most danger of being struck and killed in car crashes.  Along the way, we’ll document the experience, creating relevant guidance that will lower barriers and enable even more cities, who prioritize traffic safety, to try what has already shown to be effective elsewhere.  

As driverless cars come down the pike, our vision for nationwide, real-time predictions of car crashes, could eventually equip vehicles with the safety features and routing technologies necessary to prevent injuries and save lives.

This collaboration represents a giant step forward in the smart city movement — it has matured to a point where best practices may be applied and progress may be shared more broadly. With this partnership, between Open Data Nation and Microsoft, we begin being better stewards for the smarter nation of tomorrow.

To participate as one of the three pilot cities, representatives can submit a brief statement of interest here: (

About Open Data Nation

Open Data Nation combines detailed public records and industry expertise to reveal new, leading indicators of risks that threaten lives and livelihoods in cities. This is not the first time Open Data Nation has made waves by bringing open data initiatives to scale. In 2015, the City of Chicago demonstrated that it was possible to predict health code violations, and today Open Data Nation’s technology helps better police foodborne illness outbreaks and workplace injuries, covering more than 62,000 restaurants.

Fellow Profile: Kaivan Kotval Shroff

Where are you from? Westchester, NY
School/grad year/major: Yale School of Management Class of 2017
Last thing you searched on Bing: Lorde’s album release date
Why did you choose Microsoft’s fellowship program? I’m passionate about finding efficient ways to use big data and institutional power to solve social problems on a mass scale!
What’s your favorite civic project in the New York? I’m a big fan of the non-profit Year Up! The organization matches urban young adults with mentors and provides them with job training skills that give them the experience and opportunity they need to reach their full potential. I love how the organization uses corporate partnerships to not only find mentors for students, but to also establish a diverse talent pipeline in industries that may not have a high degree of lower-income and minority representation. This is a highly sustainable and progressive way to meet the needs of business and the underserved.
Who is your civic tech mentor/idol? I’m impressed by how Mark Zuckerberg laid out his plan for the future of Facebook as a localized community hub.
What excites you about civic tech? Civic tech is an awesome way to empower and access disenfranchised demographics in a cost-effective and scalable way. Millions of us are engaging with our phones and laptops all day every day. Small changes applied on that scale can have critical impact on society and how we engage with one another!
What’s one problem you hope civic tech will solve for cities? Police misconduct and abuse

May’s Civic Tech Events

We’re almost halfway through with 2017 — let’s celebrate May with a jam-packed schedule of events:

Every Thursday in May

How to document apartment repair issues using is a free website you can use to document the repair issues in your apartment. Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer’s Northern Manhattan Office will host a training to help you create an account and start taking action to resolve your repair issues. Thursday, May 4, May 11, May 18, and May 25, 6 – 8 pm, 431 West 125th St.

May 8

NPC17 DataJam with NYC’s Department of City Planning and BetaNYC

Do you want to improve NYC’s capital planning process?

Can to use your data science and GIS skills to improve NYC capital planning process?


Then, join us on Monday, 8 May, from 9:00 AM to 3:00 pm to improve NYC’s Department of City Planning (DCP) Facilities Explorer, a pioneering urban planning open source and open data platform!

May 9

May 2017 NY Tech Meetup and Afterparty – Creative Tech Theme

Join us for NYC’s most famous and longest running monthly tech event! You’ll see a fantastic lineup of New York tech companies presenting live demos of their products, followed by an afterparty where you can network with the community and meet our demoers and sponsors.

This month we are partnering with Creative Tech Week to showcase a select few of their featured experts showing us the latest technologies being put to creative use.

In addition, we’ll have demos from the Top 3 finishers at hackNY’s Spring 2017 hackathon!

May 10

Smart Cities Innovation: Action-Focused Perspectives From Key Leaders

NUMA New York and Civic Hall are at the center of innovation in the civic space and we would like to invite the community to join us for “Smart Cities NYC Recap Event” taking place the week after the summit on Wedesday, May 10th at 6:30pm at Civic Hall (118 W. 22nd St., 12th Floor, Buzz 12A when you arrive).

May 14

Neighborhood Challenge Applications Due

The NYC Department of Small Business Services, along with partners New York City Economic Development Corporation and New York City Business Assistance Corporation, are proud to offer the Neighborhood Challenge Innovation Grant competition.

This year’s Neighborhood Challenge 5.0 competition pairs nonprofit community organizations and tech companies to create and implement tools that address specific commercial district issues. The competition seeks to make awards of up to $100,000 to fund innovative ideas that use data-driven capacity building solutions to improve operations, target services, or address local public policy challenges.

May 18

Databite No. 99: Whitney Phillips and Ryan M. Milner

Data & Society Research Institute is pleased to welcome Whitney Phillips and Ryan M. Milner as they share excerpts and discuss their new release, The Ambivalent Internet: Mischief, Oddity, and Antagonism Online (Polity Press, April 2017).

Successes and Challenges for ICANN and Beyond

Join Chris Mondini of ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, to hear how multistakeholder participation helped globalize the Internet and learn what is on the horizon – for Internet addresses, technical coordination, and throny geopolitical issues.

May 23

NYC BigApps 2017 Finalist Expo & Winner Award Ceremony

Join us as we celebrate another exciting year of the NYC BigApps competition! At this culminating event, we will be showcasing the finalists from each of the three BigApps challenges at the Finalist Expo. The Judges will then announce the Grand Prize Winners during the Winner Awards Ceremony, followed by a cocktail reception.

May 24

Civic Hall Presents: NYC Open Data Spring Updates

For this month’s Civic Hall Member Showcase, we are excited to present the NYC Open Data Team!
The NYC Open Data Team recently finished a collaboration with Reboot, doing research on the users of open data and developing different personas to support the team’s upcoming user acquisition efforts. Come see a preview of this research and hear other updates and announcements from the City’s Chief Analytics Officer Dr. Amen Ra Mashariki.

May 25

We Don’t Learn Alone

The apps we build are more important to society and culture than ever, but the way we learn how to make them is often completely anti-social. What could a more connected and human mode look like?
The use of permissioned blockchains in the public sector has the potential to create a new balance point between two extremes: pure algorithmic governance (e.g., Bitcoin) and pure human governance (e.g., your local city council). This talk will explore if and how blockchain can help bring automation, transparency, and audit-ability to the world’s governing systems and institutions. Does the strategic introduction of blockchain-enabled validation mechanisms and smart contracts offer a means for rescuing public confidence in governing institutions while cutting costs and better ensuring fair outcomes per policy? Behlendorf will discuss these and other questions related to blockchain’s coming impact on how we govern.

May 30

Harlem to Haarlem Pitchfest

We’re Having our Harlem 2 Haarlem Pitchfest again this year! we are looking for 3 Harlem based tech companies to present their business to the audience. If you are part of a business that would like to show our Netherlands friends the innovation in Harlem, New York please send an email to

May 31

Startup Cities — Brad Hargreaves

Join Boston Civic Media’s third annual conference for a day of inspiring keynotes, presentations and networking with peers and community leaders around igniting civic creativity. Dive into topics including media literacy, youth-led advocacy, DIY activist technologies, and creative storytelling. We’ll also be announcing the first ever inter-campus curriculum addressing climate change.

June 8-9

Personal Democracy Forum

This conference will bring together top technologists, campaigners, hackers, government officials, journalists, opinion-makers,  and academics for two days of game-changing talks, workshops, and networking opportunities – celebrating the power and potential of tech to make real change happen.

Using Data Science to Improve Traffic Safety

As U.S. traffic deaths continue to rise, cities across America are increasingly focused on eliminating crash-related injuries and fatalities. Data can be a powerful resource in these efforts to make streets safer.  We’re happy to support this effort, partnering with DataKind, which recently completed the Vision Zero Labs Project. This effort worked to develop valuable analytical models and tools to help the cities of New York, Seattle and New Orleans further their work to increase road safety.

In partnership with DataKind, a nonprofit that harnesses the power of data science in service of humanity, and the New York City Department of Transportation, we launched this project in August 2015, joining forces with the Seattle Department of Transportation and the City of New Orleans’ Office of Performance and Accountability in March 2016. With these cities, the Vision Zero Labs Project has become the first and largest multi-city, data-driven collaboration of its kind to drive traffic safety efforts in the U.S.

Using data science techniques, DataKind accessed open and internal city data to design several models and tools that enable cities to test the effectiveness of various street safety interventions, estimate total traffic volumes and gain additional insight into crash-related factors.

Learn more about our work with DataKind and Vision Zero:


Launched in 2011, DataKind is a global nonprofit that harnesses the power of data science, AI and machine learning in the service of humanity. Through its core programs – Labs, DataCorps and DataDives – the organization brings together leading data scientists and social sector experts to collaborate on projects to tackle some of the world’s toughest challenges. A leader in the Data for Good movement, DataKind was named one of Fast Company’s Top 10 Most Innovative Nonprofits for 2017. Headquartered in New York City, DataKind has Chapters in Bangalore, Dublin, San Francisco, Singapore, the UK and Washington, D.C. For more information visit


An initiative born in Sweden in the 1990’s, Vision Zero aims to reduce traffic-related deaths and serious injuries to zero. It has been adopted by more than a dozen U.S. cities including New York and Seattle. Vision Zero believes that crashes are predictable and preventable, which means there is great potential for data and technology to help uncover patterns of incidents so governments can take action to prevent fatalities before they occur.

Creating Safer Streets Through Data Science — A Case Study

Executive Summary

Tens of thousands of people are killed or injured in traffic collisions each year. To improve road safety and combat life-threatening crashes, many U.S. cities have adopted Vision Zero, an initiative born in Sweden in the 1990s that aims to reduce traffic-related deaths and serious injuries to zero.

While many cities have access to data about where and why serious crashes occur, the use of predictive algorithms and advanced statistical methods to determine the effectiveness of different safety initiatives is less widespread. Therefore, DataKind, Microsoft and three U.S. cities — New York, Seattle and New Orleans — came together to help demonstrate how cutting edge and scalable solutions can be developed to help tackle a complex societal issue.

Each city had specific questions that they wished to address around local priorities for increasing traffic safety, to better understand the factors contributing to crashes and the potential impacts of different types of interventions. The DataKind team, working closely with local city transportation experts, brought together a wide variety of datasets such as information on past crashes, roadway attributes (e.g. lanes, traffic signals and sidewalks), land use, demographic data, commuting patterns, parking violations and existing safety intervention placements.

These inputs were leveraged to develop models that allowed cities to examine how different street characteristics impacts the injuries that occur, to determine the extent to which roadway user behavior and street design are contributing factors in crash occurrence and severity, to assess the effectiveness of interventions for increasing safety and guide the placement of future interventions.

The DataKind team also developed a model to help cities accurately and cost-effectively estimate “exposure” or total volume of vehicles on individual streets, a key factor in safety analyses as well as broader transportation planning activities.

Today, as a result of applying these models, the cities are better positioned to determine what kind of engineering, enforcement and educational interventions are effective and how to best allocate limited available resources.


  • In New York, with the new exposure model capability, the city can perform initial safety project feasibility studies more efficiently. When combined with DataKind’s crash models, the new capability will help the city test the potential impact different engineering, land use and traffic scenarios would have on total injuries and fatalities in the city.
  • In Seattle, the city focused on bicycle and pedestrian safety issues in order to gain insights that could contribute to the planning for more than $300 million in anticipated Vision Zero investments. The DataKind models identified collision patterns and factors that contributed to higher levels of injury severity, including whether a motor vehicle is making a right turn or left turn and the effectiveness of crosswalks in reducing crash severity. They also identified key variables affecting the likelihood of accidents taking place on particular stretches of road, including traffic volume, land use, number of traffic lanes, street width and pedestrian concentration.
  • And in New Orleans, the DataKind team created an Impact Assessment tool that will allow the city to compare various locations that are candidates for street treatments, such as bicycle lanes, and to evaluate the impact of implemented treatments over time.

In addition to aiding the participating cities in their efforts to make streets safer, the Vision Zero Labs project showed how data science and collaboration between the public and private sector can help benefit the greater good and produce innovative and scalable solutions to address complex civic issues like traffic safety. Cities around the world can adapt the methodologies and learnings to reduce traffic-related injuries and fatalities in their own communities.

DataKind Vision Zero Initiative: Purpose, Projects and Impacts

Visualization of an early version of the exposure model that estimates traffic volume by street in Seattle. This view shows the difference between the model’s estimates and actual measurements

Tens of thousands of people are killed or injured in traffic collisions each year. To improve road safety and combat life-threatening crashes, more than 25 U.S. cities have adopted Vision Zero, an initiative born in Sweden in the 1990’s that aims to reduce traffic-related deaths and serious injuries to zero. Vision Zero is built upon the belief that crashes are predictable and preventable, though determining what kind of engineering, enforcement and educational interventions are effective can be difficult and costly for cities with limited resources.

While many cities have access to data about where and why serious crashes occur to help pinpoint streets and intersections that are trouble spots, the use of predictive algorithms and advanced statistical methods to determine the effectiveness of different safety initiatives is less widespread. Seeing the potential for data and technology to advance the Vision Zero movement in the U.S., DataKind and Microsoft wondered: How might we support cities to apply data science to reduce traffic fatalities and injuries to zero?

Three U.S. cities — New York, Seattle and New Orleans — partnered with DataKind in the first and largest multi-city, data-driven collaboration of its kind to support Vision Zero efforts within the U.S. Each city had specific questions they wished to address related to better understanding the factors contributing to crashes and what types of engineering treatments or enforcement interventions may be most effective in helping each of their local efforts and increase traffic safety for all.

To help the cities answer these questions, DataKind launched its first ever Labs project, led by DataKind data scientists Erin Akred, Michael Dowd, Jackie Weiser and Sina Kashuk. A DataDive was held in Seattle to help support the project. Dozens of volunteers participated in the event and helped fuel the work that was achieved, including volunteers from Microsoft and the University of Washington’s E-Science Institute, as well as many other Seattle data scientists.

The DataKind team also worked closely with local city officials and transportation experts to gain valuable insight and feedback on the project and access a wide variety of datasets such as information on past crashes, roadway attributes (e.g. lanes, traffic signals, and sidewalks), land use, demographic data, commuting patterns, parking violations, and existing safety intervention placements.

The cities provided information about their priority issues, expertise on their local environments, access to their data, and feedback on the models and analytic insights. Microsoft enabled the overall collaboration by providing resources, including expertise in support of the collaborative model, technical approaches, and project goals.

Overall, the work accomplished by the Vision Zero Labs team proved to be invaluable for the cities of New York, Seattle and New Orleans, equipping them with powerful insights, models and tools that can help inform future planning to prevent severe traffic collisions and keep all road users safe. With this knowledge, the cities can better determine how to best allocate resources and investments towards improvements in infrastructure and policy changes.

In addition to aiding the participating cities in their efforts to make streets safer, the project showed how data science can be effectively used to address complex civic issues like transportation safety. A particular example is the technique developed in this project around estimating road use volume even when complete data is lacking. This technique is relevant both for safety analyses and broader transportation planning activities. These are the kinds of cutting edge and scalable solutions DataKind’s Labs projects aim to deliver to achieve sector wide impact.

The project also showed how collaboration between the public and private sector and amongst partner organizations can help benefit the greater good and result in innovative and scalable solutions to address complex and critical issues like traffic safety. Cities around the world will be able to benefit from the results of the Vision Zero Labs project and can adopt the methodologies and learnings from the work to reduce traffic-related injuries and fatalities in their own communities.

Below are detailed descriptions of the specific local traffic safety questions each city asked, the data science approach and outputs the DataKind team developed, and the outcomes and impacts these analyses are providing each city.

New York: Estimating Street Volumes and Understanding How Street Design Can Reduce Injuries

Map showing street improvement projects locations and change in crashes in New York

Local Question: According to the City of New York, on average, vehicles seriously injure or kill a New Yorker every two hours, with vehicle collisions being the leading cause of injury-related death for children under 14 and the second leading cause for seniors. Looking to improve traffic safety on its streets, the city wanted to understand what existing interventions are working and where there is potential for improvement to help inform how the city can better allocate its resources to protect its residents.

Data Science Approach and Outputs: The team leveraged datasets from New York City’s Department of Transportation, NYC OpenData, New York State and other internal city data to examine the effectiveness of various street treatments to help inform the city’s future planning and investment of resources. Lacking some of the data necessary to address the actual impact of existing street treatments, the team looked to answer other crucial questions regarding traffic safety that could help benefit the city.

Before they could answer these questions, they first needed to answer a more basic one — how many cars are on the road? Knowing the total volume of road users or “exposure” is necessary to understand the true rate of crashes, but most cities don’t have this data available. To overcome this, the team designed an innovative exposure model that can accurately estimate traffic volume in streets throughout the city. The model has two main components. The first is an algorithm that propagates traffic counts on a single street segment to adjacent street segments. It assumes that traffic on one city block is very similar to traffic on adjacent blocks. This process can be run many times and allows one to widely propagate traffic count values along neighboring streets. However, some streets may not have any nearby traffic counts available, so the second component of the model is a machine learning model, with high predictive accuracy, that predicts traffic volumes on streets based on their characteristics.

The team also created a crash model for New York, allowing the city to examine individual locations and test how different street characteristics impacts the number of injuries. For example, the city may be able to look at a particular street and determine whether it is safer for the street to be a one- or two-way road.

Outcomes: The exposure model will prove to be invaluable to the City of New York, filling a crucial void in vehicle volume data that many cities face. With it, the city can now perform initial safety project feasibility studies very quickly and provide context for a variety of other safety research work that requires an “exposure” rate. The model can also be altered to estimate other defined traffic volume measures, like peak hour traffic volumes. It can also help inform future work related to traffic congestion and citywide vehicle usage.

New York can also use the crash models to test the potential impact different engineering, land use and traffic scenarios would have on total injuries and fatalities in the city. They will continue to build upon the work started by DataKind, as the models developed set the stage for future research in crash prediction, congestion relief and city safety projects.

The team was able to leverage the work started in New York City to help develop and refine the approaches for both Seattle and New Orleans.

Seattle: Understanding How Street Design, Driver Behavior and the Surrounding Environment Contribute to Crashes

This “exposure” model developed for New York and Seattle shows estimates of citywide traffic volume, a key piece of information needed for advanced analyses that most cities don’t have

Local Question: While Seattle has seen a 30 percent decline in traffic fatalities over the last decade, traffic collisions are still a leading cause of death for Seattle residents age 5 to 24. Older adults are also disproportionately affected, so this trend could grow as the population ages. To supplement the findings of the City’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Safety Analysis project and provide policy makers and engineers with actionable information for developing and implementing interventions, Seattle sought to find out what mid-block street designs are most correlative with collisions involving vulnerable roadway users and what the probability of such collisions occurring is at identified locations.

Data Science Approach and Outputs: Using Seattle’s collision, roadway traffic, exposure data and environment characteristics, the DataKind team developed models to uncover collision patterns involving pedestrians or bicyclists and determined the extent to which contributing circumstance and street design are correlated with collision rates, as well as the severity level of specific types of crashes. The team also applied the methodology developed for their work with New York to calculate exposure or total traffic volume citywide for Seattle.

By incorporating incident-specific information such as time of day, weather, lighting conditions and behavioral aspects, the team was also able to further develop a crash model to evaluate elements that may contribute to crashes at intersections and to what extent driver behavior, road conditions and street design played a role.

Outcomes: The DataKind team was able to determine several variables that had the greatest impact on mid-block collisions — traffic volume, land use, number of traffic lanes, street width and pedestrian concentration were the most demonstrative inputs associated with collisions.

For instance, it was found that the fact of whether a motor vehicle is making a right turn or left turn at a given intersection will influence the severity of the collision. Researchers were also able to identify in which months of the year incidences of crashes appeared to be better or worse. Interestingly, the number of crosswalks was found to be significant and that more crosswalks at an intersection showed reduction in the severity of crashes.

With these insights, Seattle will be able to pinpoint high risk areas and the factors that can be addressed to help reduce future crashes. The city recently passed a levy to fund multi-modal transportation improvements city-wide and the results from this project, along with additional safety studies, will help guide more than $300 million in Vision Zero investments over the next nine years. 

New Orleans: Evaluating the Effectiveness of Street Treatments

Local Question: While New Orleans hasn’t officially adopted Vision Zero, the city government and community are working together to make roads safer. In 2014, New Orleans was named a “silver” level bicycle-friendly community by the League of American Bicyclists and had the eighth highest share of bicycle commuters among major U.S. cities. New Orleans also leads Southern U.S. cities in bicycle commuting. Yet, a disproportionately high number of the state’s pedestrian crashes occur in New Orleans and the number of bicycle crashes doubled from 2010 to 2014.

To help the city protect its growing number of roadways users, New Orleans wanted to understand the impact that future installation of street treatments, such as bike lanes and traffic signage, could have on preventing traffic injuries and fatalities.

Data Science Approach and Outputs: The DataKind team created an Impact Assessment tool that could be used to test the effectiveness of installed treatments, which would then be used to better inform the placement of future street treatments, both individual interventions and groups of interventions applied simultaneously.

Specifically, the tool takes a set of treatment locations and uses different statistical methods to create sets of comparison locations. These comparison locations are used as a point of reference to gauge the impact of the treatment on traffic safety by comparing crash rates before and after the installation of interventions to similar intersections that did not receive interventions. The tool includes visualizations to examine generated comparison groups, as well as methods for using manually selected comparison groups.

As an example, New Orleans could select a treatment, such as a bike lane, and compare the crash rates before and after the bike lane was installed. The city can then compare these crash rates to other comparison sites. The comparison sites are especially important because they allow the city to prepare for outside factors, such as overall growth in population or traffic. The crash rate could actually increase at a treatment site but this may be due to other factors such as large increases in traffic. When comparing a treatment site with similar untreated sites, we can see if the crash rate increased at a lower rate, thus indicating an improvement in safety due to the treatment. 

Outcomes: New Orleans has integrated the Impact Assessment tool into their systems and will be collecting more data to maximize the tool’s potential and evaluate the effectiveness of additional street features. These findings will help inform the placement of future street treatments.

“Making streets safer for all New Orleanians is a major priority of ours,” said Oliver Wise, director for the City of New Orleans’ Office of Performance and Accountability. 

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