Transport Data Visualizations Tell Powerful Stories

Carlin Carr, Mumbai Community Manager
Mumbai, 20 March 2015

Although transport data sets might be enough to make most people's heads spin, these numbers actually tell vivid stories about our daily habits, choices, movements, and needs. Bus ridership data, for example, can help municipalities devise strategies to ease congestion during peak times or map out gaps in transport systems. But making the numbers speak to people in ways that have both meaning and impact requires creativity — a task EMBARQ decided to take on.

In an effort to unearth stories from urban India's commuting habits, EMBARQ India and Urban Mobility India launched the Data Visualization Challenge. The contest asked urban planners, designers, data scientists, and civil society to help better visualize how people move about in Indian cities. Thirty entries came in from all over the country and focused on a wide variety of issues, including how women get around in Delhi, dominant transport modes in multiple cities, and real sources of air quality issues across urban India. Five winners were selected based on relevance to the theme, data analysis, aesthetic appeal, and tools used.

"The idea was to showcase to transport authorities, regulators, and policy makers the power of data visualization and how graphically representing data can unearth insights which can aid decision making," said Zainab Kakal, of EMBARQ. "The larger goal is to work with transit agencies towards releasing their schedule data to the public so that the designer and developer community can create products that will help commuters, industries, and the cities."

One winning visualization explores how populations move in select Indian cities — from the megacities of Mumbai, Kolkata, and Delhi to the emerging cities such as Bhopal, Nagpur, and Surat. The circular representations for each city burst with color, representing mode share percentage — rickshaws, walking, cars, public transport, and cycles — average trip length, average journey speed, population density, and the municipal area. In Mumbai, where discussions focus on new monorails, metros, and coastal roads, the visualization shows more than half the circle in a light blue color, representing the 55 percent of the population who get around on foot. Walking in Mumbai, says the graphic, "goes unnoticed under all the public transportation facilities."

The visualization tells an important and often overlooked story in Mumbai: that city planners and policymakers could make a big impact on the majority of commuters with very feasible pedestrian-focused solutions. Improving walking conditions should be a city priority. The visualization has an even greater impact in relation to other major Indian cities, many of which are already dominated by cars and two-wheelers. Kolkata, for example, has nearly half its circle colored in a grayish blue, representing commutes by vehicles — a path Mumbai could very easily go down if policymakers overlook what the numbers are really trying to tell them.

Another of the winning submissions, "Do Population and Vehicle Densities Affect Air Quality," found that factors other than vehicle density may be responsible for low air quality. For Mumbai, the visualization shows a much lower ratio of cars to population than Delhi, for example, and, like the other visualization, "a lower aspiration toward vehicle ownership." The message is one that rarely gets heard in Mumbai's road-centered planning.

"We were quite taken aback by the storytelling," said Kaka. "It was a great exercise that demonstrated the power of data visualization, and built the case for more open data in transport."

Photo: EMBARQ

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