When Superstorm Sandy, one of the deadliest and most devastating storms on record, hit the US East coast in 2012, it caused an estimated $19 billion dollars of damage to New York City. The Canarsie Tunnel, connecting Brooklyn with Manhattan under the East river, was severely impacted and will be shut down completely for 15 months starting April 2019. However, the tunnel carries the L-train, a major subway route in NYC used by 400,000 riders every day. An estimated 225,000 daily commuters between the two boroughs will be impacted by the shutdown and will need to seek alternative transit.

What could alternative solutions look like? And how could open data play a role in these solutions?

In his book ‘The Data Revolution’, Rob Kitchlin defines data as open “if anyone is free to use, reuse, and redistribute it – subject only, at most, to the requirement to attribute and/or share-alike”. Currently, 80% of data stored in the world is privately owned but we are increasingly seeing the benefits of opening this data to inform decisions on eg transport infrastructure or healthcare provision. At Forum, we believe that the more data becomes open, the more opportunities there are to use it to drive positive social or environmental outcomes like wellbeing or emissions reduction.

That’s why on March 10th, Forum for the Future organized the Open Data L-train Innovation Challenge, bringing together designers, developers, transit experts, and data scientists to determine how to best leverage open data for innovative transit solutions. The Challenge took place at the Grand Central Tech Hub and used open data provided by a number of transit organizations including the Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics, the Metropolitan Transit Authority, the Department of Transportation, New York and New Jersey Port Authority, the Taxi and Limo Commission and Citi Bike.


The participants were given eight hours – and access to open data sets – to develop innovative solutions that address three key impact areas of the shutdown:

  • Social – The L-train shutdown will impact many commuters, but especially those who don’t have other options for getting from A to B due to mobility or financial concerns. How might we ensure optimal accessibility and choice for transit users taking into account different needs and interests?
  • Economic – The shutdown will make it difficult for New Yorkers to get to and from Williamsburg and Union Square. Both are popular neighborhoods for food and entertainment, and are home to numerous local businesses and large employers. How might the shutdown help reimagine patterns of work and play for current L-train users and neighborhood residents? How can we support impacted local businesses?
  • Environmental – All alternative solutions – including those developed through the Challenge –will impact the environment, either positively or negatively. How might we capture real-time data once the shutdown is in place, both along the L-train and where transit is redirected, to help measure environmental impacts, to inform ongoing strategic decision making?


Here are the three winning ideas:

Flexus Bureau – connecting workers with underutilized infrastructure in their neighborhood (bars, restaurants) that could be repurposed as co-working space during the day. The Flexus Bureau would offer work spaces in Brooklyn-based “off-hour” businesses such as cocktail bars. This would lead to more traffic towards local businesses in Brooklyn while still maintaining a productive workspace for those who need it.

MTA Leads – a model to estimate the number of pedestrians on the street and determine real time pedestrian flow. Currently, the city uses manual counts to determine pedestrian flows. The service would help commuters plan their trips by subway or bus and help business owners that might be impacted by changing foot traffic.

Community not Commuting – a platform that speeds up food truck vendor licensing, registration for community events via an app portal, and alerts neighbors to new vendors and happenings. Last year 1,500 food truck applications were denied and block parties require registration months in advance. Communities would be empowered with resources to create their own recreational activities such as block parties and concerts.  

As a system change organization, we are interested in exploring how a more systemic and participatory approach to redesigning our shared spaces and cities could create positive impacts. What else in New York City needs redesigning? How can open data and other emergent technologies play a part in that? Get in touch if you have ideas, we are all ears!

Next Steps  

  • We’d like to explore how to incubate the ideas that came out from this innovation challenge
  • We want to repeat this model in other regions in the US (and beyond) to create a more sustainable mobility future
  • We’re keen to test this systemic problem solving approach on other city challenges

Find out more

At Forum, we are interested in channelling the potential of emergent technologies to drive positive outcomes and analysing how they can support systemic change. Through our Tech Catalyst, we work in partnership with organizations sharing this ambition. This innovation session is a continuation of the partnership with Dell and the City of Palo Alto, a research piece on how open data ​is being used to enable sustainability outcomes, particularly in urban mobility, so the L-train challenge is a very practical experiment of our learnings!

The event was made possible by our partner Dell and close collaboration with Grand Central Tech Hub, Collectively, the Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics, and many more contributors. To find out more about partnering with us on our emergent technology work, please contact Rodrigo Bautista [email protected].


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