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Urban Development

Why we need your help to fund independent data journalism about transportation in Metro Vancouver

Next month, citizens of Metro Vancouver will be asked to make a decision that will radically shift the future of the region. The outcome of the referendum on funding improved transportation infrastructure and maintenance will impact the economy and urban development for decades, changing how we work and move through the region.

But what does that really mean? How will this, in the most concrete way, affect our lives?

We’re told many different things by the "yes" and "no" campaigns, but actually understanding how the outcome of the vote will change our region is a daunting and complex feat. And, so far, news media haven’t provided much insight beyond reporting on the competing claims of those with a vested interest in the outcome. Despite some laudable efforts to break down the issue for readers in an evidence-based way, the coverage is dominated by opinions and reporting on the politics of TransLink’s leadership.

For example, let’s take a look at the coverage on one day, Feb. 19, 2015. Here are some headlines: "Only B.C. Transportation Minister Todd Stone can fire TransLink’s appointed board" (Surrey North Delta Leader). "Yes or no, TransLink needs fixing" (Tri-Cities Now). "City to spend $20,000 to sell Yes campaign" (Royal City Record). "High school student urges voters to say YES in transit plebiscite" (CKNW 980 Online). "Mayor Derek Corrigan says he will likely vote no" (CBC Radio One). The Vancouver Sun, the closest thing we have to a regional newspaper of record, published an editorial by Stephen Hume titled "Facts don’t support anti-TransLink ranters." The headline almost makes it sound like the piece might get beyond opinions by analyzing evidence, but it only deals with the compensation of TransLink’s executive.

This sort of reporting is important. We need journalists to hold highly paid bureaucrats to account and to report on the opinions of Burnaby’s mayor or CKNW’s high school student. But none of this offers a deeper understanding about what transportation in the region looks like or what we stand to gain or lose by the outcome of the referendum. We believe journalists have a responsibility to inform our readers about the complexities of the system and issues, and so far we’re falling short. There are so many claims made by those on the "yes" and "no" sides, and we need clear-eyed, evidence-based investigations of those.

(I should note that this problem also lies with TransLink itself, which, as a public body, is not as forthcoming with data as it ought to be.)

We think there is a desperate need to dig beyond the politics and opinions into the messy, complex data that describes how our transportation system functions and how it might change in the future. So for the past few months we’ve been working hard to obtain data about the system and collaborating with smart data scientists who understand complex statistics and modelling in order to produce content that make the complex system understandable to normal people. We will launch the project, which we’ve dubbed Moving Forward, on March 10, 2015, in partnership with media outlets.

We’re inspired by the great data journalism being done by projects like FiveThirtyEight and The Guardian’s DataBlog. The first phase of Moving Forward will dive into questions including: Where does the revenue to fund transportation come from? What trends are impacting those sources of revenue, and why do we need a new source of revenue? How do people move through the region? What research exists about how that might change with the proposed investments? How much does it actually cost to travel from point A to B by different modes, and who pays? We’re producing animated videos, written articles, infographics and interactives in an effort to make the available data meaningful to regular people.

This is why we’re asking for your support to make Moving Forward happen. In order to stay true to our editorial vision, the project needs to be independent. We think people in the region want this sort of evidence-based reporting, and we want to show our colleagues in media that our audience will support independent, clear-eyed data journalism.