Visualize Civic Engagement

Animated map of Bikeshare station utilization.

Cities thrive when citizens get directly involved in working for their city. Not only do engaged residents solve problems and guide development, but the fact they got involved makes them love their city more, and encourages the people they socialize with to also care more about their city. Because loving something and watching it grow just feels good, creating opportunities for city residents to improve their communities has benefits both for the place and for the person.

Both Boston and Washing DC have popular bikeshare systems. Massachusetts’ is called Hubway, and in DC it is called Capital Bikeshare. Both are using a system operated the company Alta Bike Share, and both are very open with their data. Here is the download page for the trip data for Capital Bikeshare, where you can get detailed information about where each bicycle was rented from, and where it was returned to.

Because the data is easily available  many people have used the data to create their own analyses and visualizations. Some of the visualizations include  an animation of riders leaving a sports stadium after a game or  interactive exploration of trips between stations.  Releasing the data has also resulted in useful statistics and crowdsourced suggestions for improvements.

Boston embarked on a grander project, a data challenge contest that invited residents to create the best visualizations of the Bikeshare data. The Hubway Data Challenge garnered 67 entries from citizens. The contest resulted in some new insights for the people who manage the Bikeshare system, but it also gave the community a deeper understanding of how the Bikeshare system works and why it is valuable, creating a more informed electorate that will make beter future decisions.

Part of the mission of the San Diego Regional Data Library is to link volunteers with city planning groups and social non profits to perform data analysis and create new visualizations, so we very interested in these sorts of events in other cities.  Since the major way that nonprofits use data is to tell stories, visualization contests can generate a lot of new ways to organizations to explain what they do or help well they are doing it, both of which are critical components to getting funding and support from the community.

Visualization contests are not a substitute for the deeper commitments that people make to town councils, planning groups or non profit social organizations, but they can be an important step in a pipeline that leads from people just living in a city to actively participating in its development.