The days of printing out the directions to the mall, your friend’s house, or even to the Post Office are long gone, as maps become more digitized, personalized, and portable. Concerns by urbanists over what they are calling the urban-digital divide are not unfounded, as fewer people tap into their own knowledge of their cities. The majority of maps that are made readily available to the average citizen are neither consistent nor collaborated on, often rendering them inaccurate or unreliable. A platform called SharedStreets is working to fill this gap by providing open-source data on cities across the United States.

The National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) and the nonprofit Open Transport Partnership announced on Thursday the launch of SharedStreets, which is intended to be an open-data standard and digital platform for mapping cities. The initiative brings public entities, private companies, and individuals together to make city mapping safer, more efficient, and more democratic.

As a platform, SharedStreets serves both as a data standard tool and as a digital mapping platform. It intends to help cities ‘translate’ streets into segments according to intersections by reading existing information on streets, breaking it down, and converting it into a simplified, machine-readable version. As for digital mapping, the platform is intended for cities to upload location-based information like traffic flow, ride-share pick up and drop offs, or car accidents. The point behind including this information is to universalize the ‘language’ used to talk about cities so as to allow decision-makers to make better decisions. SharedMaps is also looking to tighten ‘geofences,’ which could make cab and ride-share services more efficient.

Maps that are currently made readily available by the likes of Google and ride-share platforms like Uber and Lyft are widespread and used on a large scale. However, there is no consistency nor collaboration between entities creating these maps, meaning the maps are not necessarily accurate nor entirely reliable. “Up to now, we haven’t even had the language to describe the street,” said Janette Sadik-Khan, the former transportation commissioner for New York City and the chair of NACTO’s board of directors to CityLab.

SharedStreets

Screenshot of data on SharedStreets from Washington D.C. (Courtesy of NACTO)

SharedStreets is adamant on emphasizing that information that is added to the maps is anonymized by removing any rider or driver information and the names of companies who plug-in their ride data. The point behind this aspect of the platform is to ensure that SharedStreets remains neutral, open-source, and accessible for everyone. SharedStreets follows the General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS) model developed by Google in the early 2000s, which exists to support policy-making, research, and innovation.

Despite the utilitarian nature of SharedStreets, some companies like Uber have been reluctant to share their data and information in the past over fear of compromising rider and driver information. But because ride-share platforms also consider their data to be their private property, the open-source format of platforms like SharedStreets may be rendered inefficient if ride-share companies continue to refuse to share their data.

SharedStreets, as an open-source and digital mapping platform is not the first of its kind. Other platforms like Alphabet Inc.’s Sidewalk Labs and HERE Maps have been live long before SharedStreets in and beyond the United States. SharedStreets, however, is the first platform of its kind to be free. It’s also the first platform of its kind to replace government agencies or private companies as a a mediator between city mapping and stakeholders.

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