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How a new app empowers students to make sidewalks safer for their walks to school

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Traffic Agent, a Pokémon Go for junior planners, lets students report problems on their walk to school and reshape the pedestrian landscape in Oslo

Making the streets safer for schoolchildren is an important challenge, one that Vibeke Fredrikke Rørholt, a Norwegian researcher who has been studying traffic safety for 15 years, knows very well. But when she was approached by the city of Oslo and the country’s Agency of the Urban Environment and asked to make it easier for kids to walk to school, she took an unorthodox route. Instead of polling them, or sending surveys to teachers and parents, she took the simplest, most direct path to connect with students, and in the process, help them become unwitting urban planners: connect through their smartphones.

The result is Traffic Agent, an interactive app that allows Oslo’s students to report obstructions and issues on their walks to and from school with just a few taps on their smartphone. The clever mobile game—students, or "spies," report issues to HQ, even sending in photos of unkempt bushes or damaged pavement—helps to create a real-time record of street-level issues. Consider it Pokémon Go for junior planners.

Since debuting last February, the app has spread across the Oslo school system, and logged more than 5,000 issues to be examined and improved. It’s a deceptively simple, and effective formula: children report, the city reacts, and the streets become more walkable. While this past summer’s augmented reality smash, Pokémon Go, made students around the world get outside and discover their cities, the game created by Rørholt and her colleagues gives them the agency to reshape and improve their real environments, and make a significant contribution to a national movement to shift traffic patterns. Oslo plans to ban vehicles in the city center by 2020, and the city has invested in numerous plans and initiatives to encourage public transportation and make streets and sidewalks more pedestrian friendly; what better way to meet these goals than a bottom-up program that talks to an audience with an intimate connection to the city’s sidewalks and streets?

"We just got a telephone call from a mom who said, ‘My boy reported two days ago that a bush blocked his path to school and he couldn’t see when he should cross the street,’" said Rørholt. "‘And he was so proud when the bush was trimmed a few days later. He came home and said, I did this!’"

Rørholt started with the project years ago, collaborating with the city, the Research Council of Norway, and Capgemini, a consulting firm, to build an app using a €347,000 ($38,9167) grant. The team released a simple pilot in 2013 and spent the last few years tweaking and improving it before a wider release in February 2015. Rørholt believes part of the secret to the app’s success is getting gamification and interaction right. Students could have been surveyed, or teachers could have been asked to solicit complaints and reports at the beginning of the school day, but Rørholt knew students may not respond, or may have a much different view of the impediments on the road to school.

"I’ve been a teacher before, and when teachers ask children and problems on the way to school, they often talk about big boys being bullies and big dogs," she says. "They don’t talk about traffic, they talk about the scary things. "

Making the game responsive to student reports was important—each report from the street spies is met with an encouraging note from HQ—as was making sure it wasn’t a level-based system, which might encourage false reports for the sake of scoring points.

More importantly, as the example of an happy student and mother Rørholt cited earlier suggests, the children’s reports are taken seriously. Rørholt and her colleagues who field the children’s reports pass them along to city maintenance staff, often on the same day they come in. Issues such as trees and bushes that need trimming, pavement that needs fixing, or street lamps with missing light bulbs are quickly addressed. Cars parked in the wrongs spaces, or blocking sidewalks, are even given tickets thanks to these student sightings.

Security and privacy were key concerns of the developers, and all student submissions are anonymized to prevent any children from being tracked or followed. Reports are delayed, and only sent in once students move at least 200 meters away from the spot where they report an issue. Parents are given login codes to enter onto their children’s phones, to make sure they’re aware of their kids’ participation, and both the schools and analysts working on the app only know which class a particular report originated from, not the specific student.

While the app has made the walk to school more pleasant for many students, it’s also becoming a valuable dataset for city planners. With more than 35 schools using the app, the reports are helping city officials adjust roadways and traffic crossings, based on student feedback, and even providing information on traffic patterns that are being used to determine where to build new schools. It’s been so successful that Rørholt is currently in talks with other cities across the country to expand the game and get even more children to play.

"If we can make the roads safer, more students can bike and walk to school," says Rørholt. "Norway has a real goal to get people to walk, cycle, and take buses more; we want to start by making it safer for the kids."