BikePortland had an interesting scoop yesterday about how the Oregon Department of Transportation is the first in the nation to purchase data from the people behind the popular cycling/running mapping app Strava. The idea is that the state can use route data to better understand how people are using the transportation system and plan accordingly.
From bikeportland.org's Jonathan Maus:
If all goes according to plan, the data could revolutionize how ODOT makes decisions about their policies, plans, and projects. At the very least, forging boldly into the realm of "big data" and pushing the boundaries of bicycle planning marks an important step for an agency that's facing a very different future and actively looking to shed its old-school, highway-first reputation.
It's an intriguing, creative notion, and probably far cheaper than the state spearheading a project to gather its own GPS data. But the Strava buy has created a fierce debate online, with some advocates leery or upset by ODOT's move. They point out Strava is largely targeted at athletes, who can test themselves against other riders' speed on a specific stretch of road. The data, then, might not reflect how everyday riders use the transportation system.
What's more, critics point out there are potential inequities at play, given the barriers to smart phones that run the Strava app. Twitter is twittering away with calls for ODOT to treat the new ride data skeptically. Much of that discussion, on my feed anyway, is coming from Portland advocate/writer Elly Blue.
According to bikeportland's story, ODOT's aware that Strava doesn't represent the vast majority of cyclists. But it also helps fill a hole in researchers' knowledge of bike patterns.
And while this dearth of data continues to plague the active transportation field, the proliferation of GPS devices and smartphones, and the popularity of apps like Strava and Portland-based Ride With GPS, are creating a huge and valuable user database. That being said, there is a major drawback to using Strava data: it's not representative of all bicycle users. Not even close. Most Strava users tend to be serious riders on training rides. But as anyone can see on the Strava Global Heat Map, there's still much to be learned by analyzing where Strava users ride.
It's hard to argue with advocates' concerns about inequity. Still, I'm all for leveraging what little data is available to create a better system—so long as that leverage is appropriately couched. The Strava data shouldn't be treated as a biblical reflection of cycling in the state, in the same way the Hawthorne Bridge bike counter isn't considered a pure reflection of who's riding in the city on a given day. But both have merits.
For a notion of the type of info ODOT planners are working with, check out the super-interesting Strava heat map of rides taken in Portland.