Advancing Data Utilization through Collaboration

In many parts of the world, the primary form of public transportation consists of hundreds of privately owned minibuses. Data for these semiformal transit systems are often inaccessible or unreliable—routes and fares can change based on traffic patterns, police checks, commuter demands, and weather. Sarah Williams, the Homer A. Burnell Career Development Chair of Technology and Urban Planning and director of the Civic Data Design Lab at MIT’s School of Architecture and Planning, set out to change that.

She and her team mapped Nairobi’s semiformal system of buses, called matatus, and developed data in a standardized format, the General Transit Feed Specification, which made it usable in most transit routing and analysis packages. This ultimately made Nairobi the first city where the public can find directions for semiformal transit. Cities around the world are now asking Williams for help with mapping their own transit systems.

Williams has spent her career thinking about how to transform data into tangible policy changes that benefit society. “As all our lives become more data driven, we need to ensure that we don’t marginalize groups of people or inadvertently cause harm,” she says. For this reason, Williams includes a data scientist, a policy expert, and a designer on every project, as well as community members. “Collaboration is essential,” says Williams. “It allows us to take the work beyond where we could have on our own and helps create checks for accuracy or potential harm as each group looks at the questions from a different perspective and critiques the data in a different way.”

In her forthcoming book, Data Action, that will be published by the MIT Press in the fall of 2020, Williams argues that collaboration among experts will become even more critical in the future. “Going forward, an educational curriculum that crosses disciplines will be the most effective way to interrogate holes in the data. Not everyone has a cell phone or uses social media or buys online. We must analyze the data deeply to see who’s missing and ensure that the needs of all stakeholders are effectively addressed,” she says. “This isn’t just true of urban planning; it applies to other fields, such as public health, public policy, and many others. Collaboration helps keep humanity at the heart of the data.”