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Toronto is creating a "big data" traffic team as the city tries to manage congestion better by learning what is actually happening on its streets.

Noticeable results aren't expected before next year at the earliest. But the move illustrates just how much of the city's efforts related to congestion – which polls show is a top resident concern – have been based on instinct rather than evidence.

Reporters asking about the number of vehicles through a given intersection are typically given figures a few years old. The city often doesn't know the spillover effect on nearby roads of closing a highway lane. And after Mayor John Tory launched his push to tow illegally parked cars, he learned there was no easy way to assess the impact of the blitz.

"I believe passionately the anecdotal evidence I have [about towing] is true … but we don't have a full-fledged, proper way across the city to measure this," the mayor told reporters Tuesday as he announced the big-data initiative.

The push is a start toward filling that vacuum of information. The city has released a job posting for someone to lead the data unit and will spend the rest of the year deciding what they want to learn. A "hackathon" in September will let people come in, look at the available data and see what they can do with it.

Big data has become a buzz phrase in traffic circles as smartphones and GPS units make it easier to track people's movements. But in most places, the promise looms larger than the reality. Many cities are still trying to figure out how to turn the flood of data into useful information.

"The first thing is simply understanding what's occurring out there, and right now, we don't have a good handle on that," Transportation Services general manager Steve Buckley said. "We don't understand, you know, what are the worst times of day and are there potential strategies out there where we can do things differently to perhaps spread that demand over certain hours? Those sorts of things that I think, right now, we can speculate [about], but we don't have hard data."

Mr. Tory cited several cities as examples of the sort of changes technology can make possible. In Amsterdam, he said, they have a "virtual traffic manager" that claims to have reduced time lost in traffic by 10 per cent. And he related how Barcelona has an app that allows residents to see transit information, local collisions and traffic flow in real time.

"I'm assured that the establishment of this team … is going to allow us by next year to have things in place that are going to make a difference," the mayor said.

Once its strategy is in place, the transportation department expects to go to council with a funding request for the 2016 budget year. Mr. Buckley, its head, did not hazard an estimate but warned that some of the data on offer are pricey.

"None of it's free. You know, folks think that there's big data floating out there. All of these companies want to sell you things," he said.

"If we get [traffic data sets] weekly, it's one price; if we get them daily, it's one price; if we get them real time, it's a much different price. But, again, I think we have to sort of sort through all these things. And getting someone who understands this field a little bit better to start than traffic engineers is going to be a great start."

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