Cairo takes to crowdsourcing to tackle traffic

With the revolution over, Cairo citizens are banding together through social media to take on a new challenge -- the city's notoriously terrible traffic. Egypt-based company Bey2ollak has devised a smartphone app that connects users to report on the latest traffic conditions throughout Cairo.

In a city where getting from Point A to Point B may easily take 2 hours, Bey2ollak (an Arabic term that roughly translates to "word on the street") is a welcome resource to avoid the most heavily congested roads. And road users aren't the only ones taken with the new app; Bey2ollak was recently awarded first prize in a Google-sponsored competition that sought out Egypt's best start-up enterprises.

The functionality of the app is simple, which has likely contributed to its success. Users can post updates through the app to let others know how light or heavy traffic is along a certain route, and they can check the most recent posts for a certain corridor before or during travel.

Not only can these features make travel easier for individual road users, but they may also help to mitigate or even reduce traffic congestion along some streets. Those stuck in traffic may use the app to re-route to a less congested road, and drivers who have not started their trip may check the app in advance to avoid traffic altogether. The app can essentially help to spread traffic out throughout the city rather than having it concentrated along a few over-used corridors. Users may also decide to delay certain trips, such as running errands or other non-work trips, if traffic conditions are very poor.

Perhaps the most important influence of the Bey2ollak app is its potential to reduce the total number of motorized trips taken within Cairo, thereby reducing overall congestion. Those who see in advance how bad the roads are may weigh the decision to travel more carefully and may simply decide to stay at home or take a shorter trip by foot or bike. In this way, Bey2ollak and other traffic alert apps may provide unanticipated congestion mitigation benefits to urban areas in addition to the intended time savings benefits to individual users.

~ Allison Bullock

Improving walkability with a web-app, a street, and two feet

If you could give your street a grade for walkability, how would it rate? How about the streets for the rest of your neighborhood, where you work, or where you shop? Creating a walk-friendly place where people feel comfortable on the street is a key part of developing vibrant communities, and the folks at Walkonomics are working hard to help people find and share how their streets rate.

Through the collective power of open data, crowdsourcing, and social media, Walkonomics has generated over 600,000 ratings for streets throughout the UK and New York City. The web-app provides a zero to five star walkability rating for city streets based on eight characteristics: road safety, ease of crossing, presence and quality of pavements or sidewalks, hilliness, ease of navigation, fear of crime, cleanliness and appearance, and quality of life. Public street data is evaluated using these eight categories to generate an overall rating of walkability for the street, which is then displayed on an interactive map using color-coded markers. You can search for a street, view its rating and those for surrounding roads, see a detailed breakdown of the rating, check out a first-person perspective using street view, and view other users’ comments about a street's condition, all in one interface.

My favorite feature of the app is how it allows users to add their own ratings for streets, which factor into the overall rating average. The app allows anyone to voice their praises or complaints and offers an interactive space for people to discuss conditions and post suggestions for improvement. There is huge potential for city governments to get involved here by sharing data and receiving feedback from citizens on where changes are needed most. City planners especially could use this information to identify areas where pedestrian improvement projects would have the greatest impact. Interactive apps like Walkonomics are offering exciting new opportunities for helping cities create lively, walk-friendly spaces.

~ Allison Bullock

New York City crowd-sources bike share station location

London bike share New York City has always been seen as a trend-setter. This time they’re jumping on the backs of two big trends: bike sharing and crowd sourcing. New York City Department of Transportation has collaborated with OpenPlans, a non-profit focus on open government and transportation, to develop software that collects public input for bike sharing stations.

The software, to be called CivicWorks, is behind NYCDOT’s bike share suggestion engine. It is an open source tool that eventually will allow any group to open their own suggestion engine for the placement of anything on a map – street trees, parks, bike parking, new development. It takes a standard, “analog” public participation interaction exercise (involving Legos and printed maps) and brings it into the 21st Century.

At first glance, the crowd-collected data on NYC’s map seems to be rather useless. How much information can you gather about preferences if there is no variation in them? The whole city seems to be covered in dots. But as Neil Freeman of NYCDOT explained, there actually is a fair amount of variation in the data.

Each dot represents a location where one person requested a station, but also embedded in the dot are several votes from other community members. This variation enabled the DOT to produce “heat maps” of station location preferences, highlighting the need to focus first in Manhattan’s southern core, but also a desire to expand into further reaches of Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx.

The data have also been used to perform “proximity tests,” where planners compare the hottest locations with practical measures like the width of the sidewalk or ownership of the land where it would be placed.

The information collected through this online platform will be augmented with feedback collected at many in-person public meetings across the City throughout the year in order to determine the placement of the City’s first bike share stations.

-          Terra Curtis

Crowdsourcing Crime and Crime-sourcing

Perhaps it was Jane Jacobs’ “eyes on the street” concept lurking in my subconscious, or maybe it was Living Labs Globals’ mantra of avoiding re-inventing the wheel. For whatever reason, when I read this article sent over by a friend, I immediately thought, “how could this technology (that is designed around crowdsourcing live concerts) be used for cities?” What about crowdsourcing information about criminal activity? A quick Google search revealed that actually a lot has already been done on this topic in the US and abroad. Daily Crowdsource, a blog, points to 5 different solutions. Seattle’s uses Twitter to help people recover stolen cars. Ushahidi, “a non-profit tech company that develops free and open source software for information collection, visualization and interactive mapping,” produced Hatari, a solution for the residents of Nairobi, Kenya to report not only incidents of crime but also corruption.


The usual caveats also apply here: anonymity leaves individuals unaccountable. The American business magazine Forbes Magazine has written on the topic. The article describes how crime doers have applied the fundamental principles of crowdsourcing to carry out large criminal operations. Sometimes they use print newspaper ads, sometimes they use the internet – eventually, they cobble together large groups of (sometimes unsuspecting) individuals who carry out small bits of larger crime tasks or cooperate in one large task (see “flash rob”).

So here we have it: good vs. evil once again. Developed as a legitimate method for capturing the value of the wisdom of the crowd, crowdsourcing has proven effective for both crime-fighters and crime-doers. As astutely noted by Marc Goodman writing for Forbes, the “victory will belong to whichever group proves itself capable of mobilizing the larger crowd.”

-          Terra Curtis