Lifting the Breaks on Big Data

There’s a wealth of data available that could help vastly improve traffic management in our cities. We just need to put it to use.

Between 2008 and 2010, GAM carried out an extensive household survey covering a representative sample of over 40,000 of the city’s inhabitants. Information was collected about the household, the individual, and each trip that individuals made on a typical day, including the origin, destination, mode used, duration, cost, purpose, and so on.

Every year, the Ministry of Public Works and Housing collects data on traffic volumes on various nodes across the Kingdom’s road network. They do so using automatic traffic counting devices that are placed on the road and add up the number of axles passing through them.

Many of the public transport buses operated by the largest bus operating company in Amman are equipped with GPS tracking devices that feed location data to a control center at the company’s headquarters.

These are just three examples of the vast amount of transport-related data that’s collected in Jordan but not used to its full potential.

In the first example, the household survey data were used as inputs into a computer-based model that was then used to forecast transport demand in Amman, including on the BRT network currently under construction. But that was about it. Imagine if such surveys were carried out regularly and if the data were—at least partially—provided to the researchers and the general public, allowing them to create maps showing the evolution of travel patterns in Amman or even in Jordan as a whole, if we consider the second example.

In the third example, imagine if live location data were provided to the user through a mobile app, allowing them to track the location of the bus in real time and plan their journey accordingly.

Why isn’t this happening in Jordan? The data is being collected and the technology is readily available, so why aren’t we reaching for that last mile? The answer is threefold.

First, there’s an issue with the sustainability of data collection. In many cases, the data is collected as part of a one-time study, possibly funded through an international financing agency. It’s used for the purpose of that study and then shelved (often along with the study itself, sadly). In the case of GAM’s survey, the data was collected as part of the French-funded Transport and Mobility Master Plan study for Amman. Despite the value of household survey data in urban and transport planning, GAM hasn’t commissioned an update to the 2008 survey, which in now outdated.

Second, the entities that collect the data lack the organizational capacity (and the incentive to improve on that capacity) to make the best use of the data. The Ministry of Public Works and Housing doesn’t hire developers to create online tools for researchers to access up-to-date traffic count data. Bus operating companies have no incentive to hire app developers or experts in user experience. As far as they’re concerned, tracking data is only useful for making sure drivers don’t deviate from their routes. This will help their bottom line and make the regulator happy.

Third, and perhaps most important, there’s a pervasive culture of closed doors, especially in our public institutions, when it comes to sharing data. The government can’t go at it alone if we want to move forward and achieve those imaginary scenarios I mentioned earlier. So we must rid our institutions of this culture and adopt an open data approach. Last year, I worked with the advocacy campaign Ma’an Nasel on producing the first bus map for Amman. Although we managed to obtain some data on bus routes at the end (after having collected it manually), getting there was a struggle. It was almost like the data was viewed by GAM as state secrets.

The relationship goes both ways. The government itself can benefit today from some of the data about Jordan that is availably openly—such as traffic data on Google Maps.

Jordan has a vibrant tech community. Opening up data sources and engaging that community in developing smart solutions to our transportation problems can produce wonders.

We have our infrastructure, and now, as a friend once put it, we must work on strengthening our “infostructure.”