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City flows unfolding with the other Processing

A previous version of this post has been published in German on Die bemerkenswerte Karte.

Visualizations of mobility data such as taxi or bike sharing trips have become very popular. One of the best most recent examples is cf. city flows developed by Till Nagel and Christopher Pietsch at the FH Potsdam. cf. city flows visualizes the rides in bike sharing systems in New York, Berlin and London at different levels of detail, from overviews of the whole city to detailed comparisons of individual stations:

The visualizations were developed using Unfolding, a library to create interactive maps and geovisualizations in Processing (the other Processing … not the QGIS Processing toolbox) and Java. (I tinkered with the Python port of Processing in 2012, but this is certainly on a completely different level.)

The insights into the design process, which are granted in the methodology section section of the project website are particularly interesting. Various approaches for presenting traffic flows between the stations were tested. Building on initial simple maps, where stations were connected by straight lines, consecutive design decisions are described in detail:

The results are impressive. Particularly the animated trips convey the dynamics of urban mobility very well:

However, a weak point of this (and many similar projects) is the underlying data. This is also addressed directly by the project website:

Lacking actual GPS tracks, the trip trajectories are rendered as smooth paths of the calculated optimal bike routes

This means that the actual route between start and drop off location is not known. The authors therefore estimated the routes using HERE’s routing service. The visualization therefore only shows one of many possible routes. However, cyclists don’t necessarily choose the “best” route as determined by an algorithm – be it the most direct or otherwise preferred. The visualization does not account for this uncertainty in the route selection. Rather, it gives the impression that the cyclist actually traveled on a certain route. It would therefore be undue to use this visualization to derive information about the popularity of certain routes (for example, for urban planning). Moreover, the data only contains information about the fulfilled demand, since only trips that were really performed are recorded. Demand for trips which could not take place due to lack of bicycles or stations, is therefore missing.

As always: exercise some caution when interpreting statistics or visualizations and then sit back and enjoy the animations.

If you want to read more about GIS and transportation modelling, check out
Loidl, M.; Wallentin, G.; Cyganski, R.; Graser, A.; Scholz, J.; Haslauer, E. GIS and Transport Modeling—Strengthening the Spatial Perspective. ISPRS Int. J. Geo-Inf. 2016, 5, 84. (It’s open access.)

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