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A Mesmerizing Look at 24 Hours in a New York City Taxi

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A taxi in Manhattan on Sept. 4, 2012. Photographer: Spencer Platt/Getty Images
A taxi in Manhattan on Sept. 4, 2012. Photographer: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Ever get the feeling you’re spinning your wheels, driving in circles, covering the same ground you’ve covered a million times before? Chances are, you’ve got nothing on the average New York City taxi driver.

Click on the image below to trace a random day in the life a taxi. I recommend adding a soundtrack -- maybe Jay Z’s “Empire State of Mind” or Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi.” (Suggestions welcome.)

New York taxis use a GPS tracking system that records locations of pickups and drop offs, fares, passengers and all sorts of other useful data. Chris Whong -- a self-described mapmaker, data junkie and “civic hacker” -- took 24 hours of data from a single taxi, stuck it on a map and set it in motion.

Whong works with other “civic technologists” to turn public data into maps, mobile apps and other projects, according to his blog. “All of this is done in the name of better, more open, and more efficient government,” he writes. He obtained the data through a New York Freedom of Information Law request.

Other projects have been built around data from the GPS trackers, which were installed in New York taxis with mandatory credit-card machines in 2007. Click on the image below for a starlight map of all taxis that originated or ended in the neighborhoods of Lincoln Center or Bryant Park over a 24-hour period.

The NYC Taxi & Limousine Commission has gotten in on the data action, too, posting to its Twitter account the following chart explaining what New Yorkers know too well -- that it can be nearly impossible to find a taxi during the afternoon rush hour. The green line shows the number of taxis available at any given time; the black line shows the average occupancy rate.

The trouble comes between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. every day, during the afternoon shift change. The number of available vehicles plummets, while the average occupancy peaks for the day -- at around 64 percent.

Big data doesn’t always turn into big solutions. Taxi rush hour is still a problem.

“We’ve actually made a decision in the past to not micromanage the shift change.” said Allan Fromberg, Deputy Commissioner for Public Affairs at the NYC Taxi & Limousine Commission (TLC). “The reason they do it is so both the day shift and the night shift are attractive to drivers.”

One reason TLC released the analysis is to make the industry more aware of the problem, so taxi owners can make the most-informed decisions about how they manage shifts, Fromberg said.

Sometimes there’s value -- or at least a little fun -- just in seeing how the world moves.

More from Tom Randall:

Follow @tsrandall on Twitter for more civic hacking.