Cambridge Maps Thousands of Traffic Accidents for Public Hack-a-Thon

If you haven’t heard of a smoot before, bear with us. It’s a unit of measure that derives from a 1958 MIT fraternity prank where a pledge by the name of Oliver R. Smoot was used as a ruler to measure the length of the Harvard Bridge. One smoot comes out to roughly 5.583 feet.If you’re wondering, the bridge turned out to be 364.4 smoots. But more importantly, the Boston Marathon is more than 24,775 smoots! Even if you had no clue what a smoot was, that just sounds far.
A month-long hack-a-thon invites the public to help Cambridge policymakers solve problems with traffic and public safety. –George Rizer/Globe Staff

UPDATE: The City of Cambridge released a map of data for Open Data Discourse that looks at over 6,000 accidents involving cars, bikes, and pedestrians during the last three years.

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During a month-long hack-a-thon, open through December 30, the public is being invited to put their creative talents to use by engaging with policymakers in solving Cambridge traffic and public safety issues.

A group called Open Data Discourse (ODD) is organizing the Street Safety Challenge. Its goal is to start a discussion on how to make Cambridge a safer place for pedestrians, cyclists, and motorists alike.

According to data from the Cambridge Open Data portal, there have been 6,340 traffic incidents involving cars, pedestrians, and cyclists between 2010 and 2013, equating to roughly 176 accidents a month.


The data reveals the location of each accident; whether a car, bike, or pedestrian was involved; along with the date and the time of day it occurred. Public participants are encouraged to use data to determine which intersections see the most accidents or where bicyclists and pedestrians are at-risk.

ODD works with government agencies and non-profit groups to push public policy change. The City of Cambridge, the Center for Civic Media, and MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning are among the contest’s sponsors.

So, how can you make a difference? Submissions can be creative or technically-advanced, says ODD founder Carey Anne Nadeau. “We hope the concepts range from art projects, public performance, or a child’s drawing, all the way to a web app or digital medium.’’

Nadeau also hopes the public isn’t scared-off from participating because the contest is called a ‘hack-a-thon.’ The key factor isn’t tech skills, but a willingness to converse on the topic.

“This challenge is meant to engage communities in a way that makes data less scary,’’ said Nadeau. “We think this data challenge is targeted not just to web developers, but those who want to have a voice in their environment.’’


Prizes will be awarded for submissions that are particularly creative, innovative, or policy-relevant. In addition, Nadeau says some artistic projects may be put on public display.

Participants have until December 30 to submit for consideration. ODD is offering “data coaches’’ to help participants download and access the information. ODD also provides web development space upon request.

A workshop and awards dinner will be held January 9 at the Microsoft NERD Center in Cambridge.

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