It’s not every day that your 8-year-old launches a public transit survey that goes viral.
My son, Noah, has always been obsessed with subways, trains, and buses. Luckily, we live in the San Francisco Bay where there’s a very comprehensive public transit system, including buses, trams, subways, and ferries.
One morning, Noah and I came across a fascinating study of San Francisco’s Municipal Railway, which led to a discussion about the balance between accessibility and efficiency. Noah thought it might be interesting to find out how people get to their local public transit stop, in an effort to see how accessible our area’s public transit really is. If more people drove to their public transportation than walked, it would mean public transit wasn’t as accessible as it could be.
We discussed different ways to get the information Noah wanted. He could search Wikipedia, for example, or check books out of the library. Another option was to ask our friends who ride public transit. Noah liked that idea, because he could get useful information right away. But how could we do that easily?
That’s how we came around to creating a SurveyMonkey survey. After more discussion, Noah came up with the following survey questions:
- Have you ridden public transportation in the past month?
- In a typical month, which of the following forms of transportation do you use?
- In a typical month, how do you get to public transportation?
Through the process of developing survey questions, we also had to talk about what we could do to make the survey easier to take (dropping more personal questions), how we could make the survey inclusive for everyone (including a space for people outside the U.S. to write in their country) and ways we could make the survey clearer (adding parameters like “in the last month”).
Finally, we talked about a survey goal: Noah’s goal was to get 50 responses. I warned him that we probably wouldn’t get that many. (Little did I know…) Then, we launched the survey.
First, I posted the link on my Facebook page, so a few of my friends would see it. Almost as an afterthought, I sent out a tweet.
The tweet was retweeted 120 times, by very nice people who wanted to help out a fellow data enthusiast. Soon, it had gone worldwide. Hundreds of people from every habitable continent were taking Noah’s survey!
Noah’s eyes were glued to the screen all day…and he got up and checked the survey as soon as he was awake the next morning, reading all the states and countries represented. It seemed that, every time he logged in, another 50 or 100 people had taken his survey. At one point, to my surprise, I caught him wiping away tears.
“Why are you crying?” I asked him.
“My survey is really good! I’m crying because I’m happy!” he said.
It was so fun to watch him get so excited. All these numbers represented real people, all of whom had taken the time to give their opinions! Finally, we were ready to look at some of the data, and here’s where things got a bit tricky for me: I couldn’t stop him from playing with the filters.
Very quickly, Noah realized he could formulate questions like “How many of the ‘no’ answers walked to public transportation?” and “Are there ferries in Texas”? With filters, we could answer these questions and more. The filters really helped him to understand how much he could do with the raw data.
In the end, the vast majority of respondents did walk (or run!) to public transportation, which meant their transit was very accessible. This led to a discussion about self-selection bias; of course, many of the people interested in a survey about public transportation would be people who regularly rode public transit, and, thus, people whose local transit systems were accessible. As well, Noah hadn’t asked the “no” answers why they didn’t ride public transportation, so we weren’t able to find more answers to the accessibility question that way.
I’m so grateful to the kind people who took time out to help Noah with his transit study. In the end, creating, maintaining, and analyzing the survey really helped Noah to understand the power of information. Children are always curious, always asking questions; amazingly, through his survey, Noah got to ask over a thousand people questions…and get really valuable data in return.
We monkeys also got a super special treat when Noah stopped by our headquarters to give a talk about his public transportation survey and share what he learned. You can catch a snippet of what he learned in the video below. Thanks so much for visiting us, Noah!
Marcella manages content, community and social media for Bay Area startups. She blogs about food, music, crafts, and more at bakerstreetblues.