The bus sun experiment

Bus moving from shadow to sun A map showing where shadows approximately fell in the bus station

Whilst carrying out a little field research for the Kerbside Diaries project with Emilie Giles, I was left with a little spare time in central Southend. So I decided to do a little experiment with collecting bus data.

When we do research into data collection, one something that can be forgotten is how the people involved in the data collection might feel. 4 times a year, staff from Southend Council’s transport team brave the weather, stand at bus stops and create a detailed record bus arrival times. From this, they generate a statistic of how punctual the buses are, which is sent to the government.

So a brief experience of what it’s like to do this kind of work seemed valuable. Only, on arriving at Southend Travel Centre, I decided to do it a little differently. It was a bright sunny day, so rather than recording when buses ‘arrived’, I recorded when the bus entered and left the shadow of the bus station. (A rough approximation where shadow fell is shown in the lower map)

In some ways this corresponded with arriving - the bus had to go from sunlight to shadow and shadow to sunlight to enter and leave. But actually many buses crossed in and out more than once, and sometimes the buses passed right through. So why did I choose to record information this way?

It was really a way let me think about how we record data and what this data means. We think about buses arriving on time, or being early or late, but how do we get the data recorder - human or otherwise - to understand what it means for the bus to arrive. From human data recorders, we might expect a bit of common sense, but a simple recording device wouldn’t understand the idea of a bus ‘arriving’, it can only register a signal from its sensors which we might expect it to receive when a bus arrives.

It also let me reflect on the conditions data recorders need to work. Here, I could only take measurements when the sun was shining. This reminded me of the traffic and cycle counters used by the council, which are solar powered, which makes data retrieval tricky on cloudy days. It was also very difficult to take measurements if there were any distractions. And lastly, other conditions were affecting me, which I decided to record as well.