Breaking Down July’s Best Data Visualization

Source: New York Observer & NYC Taxis: A Day in the Life

Taxi drivers are the journeymen of New York City. There’s a mystique to the taxi driver, they possess a certain intimacy with the city that few others do. New Yorkers interact with them on a daily basis, but only for a brief moment of a taxi’s day. No wonder that a story about a day in the life of a New York taxi went viral in July.

It was not a story told with words or pictures, though. Rather, it was told with data and maps, a visualization of what it’s like to scamper from fare to fare around the United States’ biggest city. NYC Taxis: A Day in the Life captured imaginations worldwide. In the words of its creator, Chris Whong:

The visualization was published in the early hours of Monday, July 14th, after I spent just about the whole day Sunday putting finishing touches on it and getting it to run on Heroku.  I’d been working on it for over a month, sneaking in a few hours here and there on nights and weekends, and just wanted to get a minimum viable product launched so I could stop thinking about it (that backfired :p ).  By Monday evening it had seen over 80,000 unique visitors, had around 900 to 1000 concurrent users, and had racked up a whopping 600,000 map views on Mapbox.    It was picked up byFiveThirtyEight, The New York Times, Technically Brooklyn, Gizmodo, The New York Observer,Gothamist, TechPresident, Fast Company, Bloomberg, The Washington Post, Huffington Post,AM New York, New York Magazine, Quartz, Bustle, mashable, and, most unexpectedly (but so awesome), BuzzFeed.  It even got coverage in the UK, The Netherlands and France.

The visualization captivated so many people because it eloquently unfurls a taxi’s mystique into an easily understood interface that people can play around with and explore.

We’re seeing a proliferation of data visualizations like this as a way of telling stories, explaining how different facets of city life work. One reason why is because only in the past few years have the tools needed to make useful data visualizations become available to the masses. Here’s a roundup of the different organizations, entities, and tools that made NYC Taxis: A Day in the Life possible, culled from Chris’ blog posts and attribution on the app:

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Exploring the future of geospatial mapping at the Esri User Conference

Reporting live from San Diego, I’m Ron…I mean…I’m Jason Novack.

Placemeter spent the week here for the annual Esri User Conference, where we were featured as an emerging business partner. Our booth was part of the Startup Zone, alongside autonomous UAVs for minestravel alert systems for adventurers, and crowdsourced disaster recovery.

We were here to show off our first-ever real-time map service of pedestrian traffic in NYC! As Placemeter continues to build out its real-time map layer of real-world activity, its users & customers will increasingly need Esri’s spatial analytics tools to consume the data efficiently.

Perhaps the best part of the conference—besides the beautiful weather, showcase of amazing technologies, and collection of great people—was the discussions we had surrounding new use cases that could support all kinds of industries. From air quality monitoring to energy efficiency, smart parking to surfing, we are surer than ever that Placemeter’s generating a soon-to-be essential means of analyzing the world.

Just as Esri weds information with geography, and Google organizes the world’s digital content, Placemeter will provide deep and pervasive analysis of human movement to invigorate old industries and create new ones.

Big thanks to Myles & Kurt for organizing the Startup Zone. You stay classy, San Diego.

Want to help Placemeter build the future? Sign up to become a Meter and put your window to work.

Why new metrics will help improve urban mobility

Cars streaming over the Golden Gate Bridge (Flickr)

For a long time, cars reigned supreme in the American city-planning landscape. Suburbs thrived, and people needed a way to get back and forth between their houses in the suburbs and their work in the city’s center. City designers, planners, and developers built projects around car traffic and how easy it would be for people to get in and out of a specific place via car.

Now, we’re witnessing an influx of residents streaming back into a city’s core, increasing pedestrian activity, and emphasizing alternative transportation options. What once worked for the commuter traveling from the suburbs most likely won’t work for the pedestrian walking to work from her apartment. Cities must adapt to providing viable transportation options for both. Recognizing these trends, and also that vital urban cores can be huge economic drivers, large American cities are shifting away from a cars-first transportation approach to one that accounts for multiple modes of travel.

It won’t surprise you to learn that a shift that big can often move at a glacial pace. Though city planners and urban designers might think that a change is right, regulatory environments can be slow catching up to modern trends.

Take the saga of San Francisco’s bus rapid transportation (BRT) line down Van Ness Avenue. The BRT line would establish a dedicated express bus lane in the middle of a large thoroughfare in downtown San Francisco, adding a vital node to the city’s transportation options. Voters approved the project in 2003, and the city raised money for it with a half-cent sales tax increase. The project was set to open in 2009. But, construction hasn’t even started on it more than a decade after it was approved.

Here’s why: before the construction could start, the project had to be quick-tested for whether it would negatively affect a set of environmental factors outlined in the California Environmental Quality Act. It was found that the new project would negatively affect “traffic,” one of the 18 factors laid out in the CEQA. This triggered a larger environmental report, which cost $7 million and took more than a decade to finish.  So, how did a project that promises to improve urban mobility get a negative rating for traffic? Eric Jaffe reports:

Here’s the sad thing about the Van Ness BRT report: The only area where it had an unavoidable negative impact that couldn’t be offset under CEQA was traffic. “So this whole document was prepared because of the traffic impact,” says Schwartz, nodding at the enormous report. And here’s the really sad thing about CEQA traffic impacts: They’re determined using a car-friendly metric known as “level of service” that bases a project’s transportation performance on driver delay. In other words, Van Ness BRT required all the trouble of preparing this massive report because, in the twisted eyes of California law, public transit is considered a greater enemy to the environment than car travel.

The “level of service” (LOS) metric meant that cars took pride of place in development projects over other, equally viable or even better transportation option. This means that though cities now know that cars shouldn’t necessarily be the primary mode of transportation anymore, the laws regulating how cities are built in California still think so:

In California, LOS has an especially high-profile. As the primary arbiter of traffic impacts under CEQA—adopted in 1970 by Governor Ronald Reagan—the metric not only determines the fate of many transportation and development projects, but has the awkward role of promoting car use within a law designed to protect the environment. “We have one section of CEQA saying we’ve got to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” says transportation consultant Jeffrey Tumlin of Nelson\Nygaard, “and another section of CEQA saying we need to accommodate unlimited driving.”

Jaffe reports how thankfully this imbalance is about to change. Regulations are finally catching up to the reality that urban mobility need not solely rely on car travel. New metrics will replace LOS and take into account the variety of options that cities are now promoting for their citizens to get from point A to point B and all places in between.

Metrics are important. But, what San Francisco’s experience teaches us is that what type of metrics you’re collecting is just as important. In the case of the BRT, the wrong type of metric caused what many consider an unnecessary delay in construction. With a more comprehensive set of data tools in the city’s hands, citizens might’ve been riding the BRT down Van Ness today.

It is this exact sort of holistic approach that Placemeter’s data bolsters. Rather than just guessing at how many pedestrians are walking on a sidewalk or how many cars are zooming down your street, our tech will let cities know how many. That’s why we’re working with customers like the Mayors Office of Data Analytics in New York City to help them better understand the city.

We hope that our technology will cut down on the time and resources needed to make traffic reports and environmental studies like the one that plagued San Francisco’s BRT. At the end of the day, the laws and the regulations and the data tools like Placemeter’s should all be geared towards letting city builders get to the important stuff: making better, more livable places for people to thrive in.

Sound exciting? Join Placemeter today. You can make up to $50/month helping us crowdsource our network of sensors. Learn more here.

Using computer vision to fix Beijing’s “pollution crisis”

Beijing has a pollution problem that the Chinese government addresses in part by imposing steep dynamic tolls within the city. One problem, though, is that the government acts on inaccurate data to impose the tolls, creating hassle for citizens while not necessarily fixing the underlying pollution problem. IBM is looking to solve this problem using computer vision sensors and satellite imagery to more accurately identify pollution problem spots during the day, via Quartz:

IBM plans to improve the quality of data by installing its latest generation of optical sensors, incorporating meteorological satellite data and running that through its artificial-intelligence computing system (a.k.a. Watson, that computer that trounced humans on Jeopardy). The visual maps it generates will identify the source and dispersal pattern of pollutants across Beijing with a street-level degree of detail 72 hours in advance.

This is a great example of how a distributed network of optical sensors using computer vision can make life in large—and growing—cities more livable.

For others, check out Placemeter’s website and sign up to become a Meter!

Placemeter One of Business Insider’s ’31 Hot New York Startups You Need To Watch’

Thanks, Business Insider! We’re blushing.

From our entry:

The goal of Placemeter is to collect data to help increase the effectiveness of urban design, give local businesses a better idea of their traffic, and help consumers get useful info like how crowded the bar down the street is before you get there. If you live in New York City and your apartment faces a street, you could get paid up to $50 a month by Placemeter to turn your iPhone or Android phone into a Placemeter sensor. Just attach it to your street-facing window and let it collect data and video.

Well, what’re you waiting for? Sign up to become a Meter here or check out more information on our website.

The 4 best New York spots to eat lunch outdoors during work

Get this in Midtown. Seriously.

Get this in Midtown. Seriously. (serious eats)

After a long, brutal winter, we at Placemeter are relieved that summer has finally come. But, we’ve run against the main paradox that all modern-day office workers face during the summer. While the sun is out you’re inside, and while you’re out the sun’s setting. What to do, what to do?

Thankfully, New York has come up with a clever way to get its workers some much-needed rays, while also being productive. And that, my friends, is the outdoor lunch. Yes, people lunch outdoor during the summer everywhere. But New York’s kicked the art of outdoor lunch up a notch or two. So, without further ado, as ardent opponents of the sad desk lunch, Placemeter presents to you our favorite places to lunch outdoors. We’ve left off a bunch, so chime in with your favorite spot in the comments below.

Bryant Park

Lunchers sprawled across Bryant Park’s lawn during a hot day. (NYTimes)

During the summer, Bryant Park isn’t just good for outdoor movie screenings. The abundant seating options, on-site eateries, and lush lawn to people watch at make it an island in a sea of midtown tourists and skyscrapers. Admire the Beaux-Arts majesty of the New York Public Library’s main branch, watch some bocce ball playing, and chow down on a quality sandwich from ‘wichcraft.


Madison Square Park/Madison Square Eats

Check out the Flatiron Building while eating some Calexico burritos.

Though Madison Square Park isn’t as expansive as Bryant, what it lacks in space, it makes up in some of New York’s best lunch options. There is, of course, the original Shake Shack, but the line there can be a bit prohibitive to those of us who don’t have 2-hour-long lunch hours. Thankfully, just a hop, skip, and jump away from the park is Madison Square Eats, which sets up shop during the summers. There, you’ll find some of the City’s best food shops meting out lunch-worthy shares to their adoring masses. If you work in Flatiron, want sun and great food, then Madison Square Eats is the way to go.


Broadway Bites

Basically an alleyway of culinary delights.

If you love Madison Square Eats, but work in midtown, then Broadway Bites is for you. That’s no mistake, they’re both run by UrbanSpace. Broadway Bites is located in Greeley Square Park, right south of Herald Square. The food options are just as good as Madison Square Eats—run, do not walk, to Roberta’s—but there’s not as many viable, pleasant outdoor seating options as the Flatiron District. Our suggestion: go as a group. Get one person to wrangle up some tables and chairs in the pedestrian plazas north of the square, while the rest of the group grabs the food (plus a dessert for the chair wrangler). By the time you get your food, you should have enough seats and tables to chow down in the sun while the hustle and bustle of midtown swirls around you.


Stone Steet in FiDi

Stone Street in the Financial District

Stone Street is more known for boozy dinners and brunches, but the food is just as good during the day. You get to sit on some shaded picnic tables and eat some quality pub grub on one of the oldest streets in Manhattan. In between burger bites, pause, look around, and savor the cobble stone street juxtaposed against some of New York’s highest skyscrapers. It’s at this intersection, the one between new and old, tradition and progress, where New York thrives.


Got any good outdoor lunch options? Leave ‘em in the comments below.

Something else you can do during your lunch break: become a Meter. Put your window to work and earn up to $50/month in NYC all while making your city better.

Check out more information or sign up now.

Looking Back at New Cities Summit 2014

Kicking off the New Cities Summit 2014

Some of us this week spent a few days in Dallas at the annual New Cities Summit. Organized by the New Cities Foundation, NCS 2014 focused on re-imagining what cities can be and how to get them there. It was three days packed full of talks and meetings with mayors, app-makers, physicists, and the odd economist or two.

Placemeter CEO Alex Winter spoke on a panel with other speakers Teji Abraham from Cisco and Romain Lacombe, the former Head of Innovation and Development of Etalab in France.  Gareth Mitchell from BBC’s Click Radio moderated the panel, which focused on how innovation in urban data can help make cities better—a topic near and dear to our hearts!

Alex spoke about Placemeter’s vision to create a real-time data layer measuring the pulse of the world’s largest cities. He also spoke about the privacy implications of our technology, and how important it is that citizen involvement through projects like the Meter Program are baked into Placemeter’s technology.

Romain and Taji brought different perspectives to the panel, one from a big government like France trying to keep up with the pace of innovation, and one from a big company like Cisco that serves as a platform and enabler for a lot of that innovation. Both agreed that startups like Placemeter play an integral part in creating new, innovative ways for city governments and the businesses they work with to better understand themselves and the changes constantly occurring within them. One key takeaway from all the panelists: generating new data is important, yes, but how you interpret and put the data to use is in many ways the more important—and harder—part of the equation.

It was a fitting panel for Alex to participate in and one that encapsulated the summit in many ways. Summit-goers from speakers to participants and government officials to businesspeople, all spoke about a new emphasis on data in understanding our cities. People wanted to know how to harness that data to drive decisions around their cities and the excitement for technologies like Placemeter’s was palpable.

The summit reminded us that cities aren’t just plain canvases for businesses and governments and people to paint on, but rather a living organism delicate and complex in itself. We’re excited for how Placemeter can create data around those organisms, making cities more vital and better places to live. Thanks, Dallas, for being a wonderful host city full of enthusiasm and hospitality, and to the New Cities Foundation for putting on a wonderful conference. Until next year.


New Yorkers, earn up to $50/month putting your window to work with Placemeter: