[Guest blog post written by Anahi Ayala Iacucci, Innovation and New Technologies advisor. Anahi was the Ushahidi strategy consultant for the Beijing project in 2011. She blogs at Diary of a Crisis Mapper]

In February 2011, Ushahidi’s Patrick Meier launched a novel project with the World Bank in Beijing. The aim of the project was to see how the Ushahidi platform could be used by the municipal authorities in the city to address traffic and urban transport problems in the city.  Beijing and other Chinese cities have transformed dramatically over the last two decades. Where Chinese cities used to be dominated by walkable neighborhoods and inhabited by swarms of bike riders, recent development has focused almost exclusively on the needs of the automobile, leaving many bike riders and pedestrians marginalized.

The government started to realize the need to preserve and ultimately increase the number of people riding bikes. Over the past year, government agencies have made appeals for feedback from the public on these issues but have not had the tools to manage this public engagement effectively. This project aimed at utilize the prevalence of cellular phones (and other mobile devices) and crowdsourcing methodology to dramatically change the way urban transport improvements for these users are conceived, planned for, and delivered. In the long term, the project aimed to create a web platform that will open a direct link between users of transport and transport planners, allowing planners to identify, prioritize and obtain feedback on system improvements based directly on user feedback.

The genesis of this project grows out of the ongoing research program the Bank has established with the Beijing Transport Research Institute (BTRC). BTRC has previously requested the Bank’s assistance in finding ways to improve the pedestrian and cycle experience in the Beijing metro area.

Then Ushahidi team, myself and Linda Kamau went over to Beijing twice (and fell in love with the roasted duck… but that’s another story) and set up the platform working in close collaboration with the BTRC and the World Bank (big kudos to Andrew Salzberg for his incredible energy, patience and support in all phases of the project). After much effort and persistence, the Beijing Transport platform is finally taking off. We localized the Ushahidi platform, both front-end and back-end and also fully customized Ushahidi’s smart phone apps for both the Android and the iPhone.

On Sunday April 29th, the first live test was carried out in collaboration with 50 students from Tsinghua University in Beijing who cycled in and around the campus, collecting information on cycling facilities and reporting them to the platform using their iPhone and Android phones. Friends of Nature, a Beijing-based environmental NGO, helped organize the testing event on Sunday.

When this online platform is officially launched, which will happen later this year, anyone will be able to submit a mini report on issues related to quality of cycling and walking infrastructure as they discover, via web, smart phone apps, SMS or social media. Like during the one-hour testing on Sunday, the volunteers spotted a formidable array of issues that hamper cycling and walking, such as vehicles parked in bike lanes, no bike parking station or safe location to lock their bikes, areas with mixed traffic placing cyclists and passengers at greater risk.

All user-generated reports are then then mapped and visualized, available for others to view and comment on.

What’s great about this project is that this is the tool that the transport planners in Beijing hope to use to collect feedback from citizens on urban transport conditions, so as to build them safer and more accessible. According to Zhao Hui, transport planner at the Beijing Transport Research Center, Beijing Municipal Government is making efforts to improve cycling environment and this platform is expected to help BTRC make better plans by understanding cycling problems faced by Beijing residents.

For university students like Yin Jialun, who was one of the students that tested the system, bicycle is a main form of transportation, so, good conditions that smooth biking experience mean a lot to them. “When reporting something that could be possibly fixed, I consider it my way of contributing to development of the urban transport system and the city as a whole,” he said.

According to the World Bank Urban Transport Unit in Beijing this project marks the first time that a government agency has used this platform for the purpose of collecting feedback from citizens on urban transport conditions in China.

The World Bank supported the Ushahidi team during the course of the 6 months of project implementation, especially on the translation, installation and modification of the Ushahidi platform and related trainings provided locally. This pilot project opens up important possibilities in terms of using mobile and web-based mapping tools as an integrated part of urban transport planning, as well as implementation and monitoring of future urban transport projects in China and around the world.

A second-round testing of the platform will take place in mid-June. After that, the platform will enter the open beta phase, when the system will be made available fully to the public to gather feedback in real time.  Stay tuned, there is more to come from China!