Special Report: Open Public Data

Detailed Collision Data Could Help Resolve Pedestrian Debate

Open public data would allow citizens to participate more in building a greater city by being knowledgeable about the reasons for public policy decisions.

By Joey Coleman
Published April 14, 2011

We need evidence-based public policy debate in Hamilton, but we cannot reach this level of discussion in the absence of information.

Open public data is one step toward improving the public discourse and increasing public participation in policy decisions.

The most recent example of why we need data is happening in our downtown core right now.

Pedestrian Enforcement

The Hamilton Police uniformed patrol in Division One is cracking down on pedestrians who disobey the Highway Traffic Act and municipal By-Laws as part of a "zero tolerance policy" of enforcement.

Police state that this is intended to decrease the number of motor vehicle accidents involving pedestrians.

This prioritization of police resources has generated an emotion-based debate in the public sphere regarding its merits. Pedestrians point to drivers as the problem, drivers point to pedestrians, and many ask if this is really the best use of police resources.

This question could be answered if public safety data was available to the public. It is not.

Perception and Reality

As is often the case with crime and public safety, the perception of the matter can be different than the reality.

Crime statistics show a drop in all criminal activities, especially violent offences. Despite this evidence, the public continues to feel unsafe and this emotional public perception of crime is ripe for exploitation.

Think of immediate past police chief Brian Mullan's new role as a salesperson for a private security alarm company - private alarm companies continue to be able to sell to our emotional response to crime.

We need access to detailed crime statistics to assist ourselves in overcoming our natural emotional response to the threat of crime.

We need public safety data as well.

Small Dataset, Big Assumption

The police news release announcing the pedestrian enforcement campaign stated:

As part of a year long Traffic Safety Campaign, the Hamilton Police Service Division One Patrol Officers will be participating in a Pedestrian Safety Enforcement Strategy with a focus on pedestrians failing to obey traffic signals and in violation of the Highway Traffic Act of Ontario (HTA) and City of Hamilton By-laws.

The purpose of the Strategy is to manage and minimize problems associated with pedestrian non-compliance. The issues resulting from non-compliance of the pedestrian traffic signals are usually minor in nature but there is always the risk for serious injury or death. In 2010, there were 129 motor vehicle collisions in the Division One patrol area involving pedestrians who were injured; with four pedestrian fatalities.

The news release contains two pieces of data:

The rationale advanced for the increased focus of police resources upon pedestrians is that it will decrease the number of accidents in Division One.

Increased enforcement likely will decrease the likelihood of accidents; if people know the police are patrolling with the goal of issuing tickets, they become more vigilant.

The public policy question is whether the focus on pedestrians is more effective than a focus on other factors. In the absence of data, it's a question that cannot be answered.

2010 Pedestrian Fatalities

At present, the public can attempt to make an evidence-based assessment of the allocation of resources to this campaign with partial data. However, it hardly builds a stronger, better city when we are making decisions using incomplete data.

In January, as an exercise in trying to better understand pedestrian fatalities, I mapped out all the locations of fatal pedestrians accidents in 2010.

Of the four fatal pedestrian accidents in Division One, two resulted in charges against the driver, one resulted in no charges, and one remains under investigation.

These four accidents cannot be used to determine who is to blame, or not, in the other 125 MVCs reported last year.

Based on just these four accidents - the only detailed data available - it could be concluded that motor vehicle drivers are the greater problem as two-thirds of the completed investigations resulted in charges against the driver.

The statement above does not met even the simplest of tests - the sample size is too small. With a data set of the 129 accidents, the public could determine their position based upon real evidence.

2010 Collisions Involving Pedestrians

An Open Hamilton member provided a listing of the locations of MVCs involving pedestrians last year:

This map, based on a much larger data set, provides another perspective on the decision by Division One to focus upon pedestrian violations.

Division One is where the greatest proportion of pedestrian accidents occurred last year. It makes sense that it is a higher priority within the borders of this division. (Division Three has decided to focus its blitz resources on vehicles violating the Highway Traffic Act along Upper James.)

Informed Decisions

The problem with the pedestrian accident map above is that Open Hamilton does not know any further details. The list we were able to obtain only listed location - we don't know the extent of injury, the date or time of day, and if any charges were laid against either drivers or pedestrians.

In the absence of that detailed data, we cannot determine the extent of the problem or the causes of MVCs involving pedestrians.

Open public data would allow citizens to participate more in building a greater city by being knowledgeable about the reasons for public policy decisions.

Joey Coleman covers Hamilton Civic Affairs.

Read more of his work at The Public Record, or follow him on Twitter @JoeyColeman.


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By SpaceMonkey (registered) | Posted April 14, 2011 at 16:44:05

This map is great. Finally some real data to show that one way and two way streets are no more safe or dangerous, than the other, for pedestrians in Hamilton.

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By Datamoner (anonymous) | Posted April 14, 2011 at 17:19:26 in reply to Comment 62282

Actually, without knowing the number of pedestrians on respective streets, this data does not tell us anything useful about which kind of street is safer.

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By Ted Mitchell (registered) | Posted April 14, 2011 at 20:21:56

Agree you need pedestrian and traffic volumes to say anything about the risk.

I suspect that there is no accurate (or at least unbiased) recording of causation in many cases, especially the more minor injuries. They just don't have the time or resources to do it properly. Then even if it was recorded, not easy to study unless it is properly entered in a database that can be searched and keeps other stuff confidential etc, so data mining is quite a bit more practically difficult than it seems.

Related to this, I've asked the police about recording of tire condition on those slippery days where the emerg has several clients dragged out from ditches; if it is not a fatality or severe injury that may result in delayed fatality, the data collection is pretty poor, i.e they generally would NOT record if the person had snow tires or bald all seasons. I've often asked people who have been in minor crashes on these days whether they had snow tires, and there were at least a dozen no's before I got a yes. Unscientific, but given the Ontario average of using snow tires is about 30%, maybe suggests something?

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted April 14, 2011 at 22:06:18

As one of many who's spent far too much time dredging for these stats in the last week, thanks Joey. This kind of data needs to be collected and analysed, as lives are quite literally at stake.

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By Drunken Monkey (anonymous) | Posted April 15, 2011 at 02:18:25

How much "open data" do you really need to figure out that jaywalking or crossing on a red on a busy arterial street is a stupid thing to do?

Throw the book at them by all means, if the lesson sinks in it just might save a life or two, who knows...

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By JoeyColeman (registered) - website | Posted April 15, 2011 at 09:27:35 in reply to Comment 62325

It's not about the 'stupidity of jaywalking'.

I'm arguing that the police have limited resources and the public should be able to make an informed evidence-based decision regarding their opinion of the deployment of resources.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted April 15, 2011 at 11:11:57 in reply to Comment 62325

Is jaywalking actually stupid? That's what we're trying to figure out.

Some people like data, I suppose, and others are just haters.

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By Dundasian (anonymous) | Posted April 15, 2011 at 21:29:28

Not so long ago in Dundas, the crosswalk lines at King & Olgivie were fading - so the "New City Of Hamilton" was asked by local residents to re-spray them - the city refused as it would make them liable for accidents (or some such excuse) The previous Town Of Dundas was run on common sense not fear it seems

When a local threatened to take a can of white paint and do it, the city spent a small fortune on a traffic study and concluded the only way to fix this problem was with traffic lights - so 1/4 million later in studies and construction and upkeep costs later one may find themselves at a red light on a Sunday night waiting and idling for nothing.

You might argue that it is now safer and easier for pedstrians to cross but people cross the street between shops at many different places and either wait for cars to pass or cars see pedestrians and stop. quite civilized and quite safe.

Tickets for jaywalking will be like parking tickets - a form of income and mild deterrence but mostly income...


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By banned user (anonymous) | Posted April 15, 2011 at 22:26:25 in reply to Comment 62333

comment from banned user deleted

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted April 16, 2011 at 13:10:12 in reply to Comment 62357

Dundas would be a very good example of a walkable downtown where jaywalking is pretty much expected. Coupled with two-way traffic and on-street parking, the frequent jaywalkers slow traffic and keep drivers alert. It's not a freeway (though it is a highway), and people don't expect to get anywhere quickly. People jump out in front of me nearly every time I cruise down there, but unlike Main West (on my way into Dundas) passing the University, I'm not going so fast it's impossible to stop when somebody does. So I hit the brakes, wait three seconds, and move on.

You could say the same of Concession, Ottawa, Locke, or Downtown Cambridge. All of which make our current downtown look like the set of some sort of Zombie movie(s). Jaywalking is always a feature of healthy, walkable communities. And while all of these places might be a slight pain to drive through, they're all worth driving to.

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By Mogadon Megalodon (anonymous) | Posted June 03, 2011 at 11:26:37


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