As cities sprout up in native ecosystems, keeping track of how our urban cohabitants are adapting to them has been a work in progress for scientists. An initiative from The Daily Telegraph and other crowdsourced efforts have been underway in the UK to count the foxes spotted in urban areas, for example. And Microsoft has been using AI to gather information about the growing population of urban monkeys in India.
And in the biggest city in the United States, residents know that the true New Yorkers are the rats. Rats, with their complex community dynamics and resourcefulness, have taken over the town, and forced the city to come up with creative ways to fight back against them, including recently anointing a “rat czar” to head off the problem. As much as people hate to admit it, rats, though jarring whenever they appear, are a part of the urban ecosystem. Like other city dwellers, they’ve learned the ins and outs of city life, and have made the most of it.
In its efforts to understand its rat residents, the city of New York has taken measures to collect rat stats. One project to come out of this data-gathering effort is the rat map, which indicates hot spot gatherings for rodent group hangs. Another app called Transit is taking a more citizen science approach to see where the most popular rat hubs are. Transit uses open transit data provided by city agencies to help riders visualize train and bus times in their area (it works in cities like New York, Boston, and Los Angeles). It aims to help commuters find the best and fastest way to get to their destination. Beyond ingesting schedules, the app also relies on crowdsourced information about alerts or other unexpected events.
[Related: Open data is a blessing for science—but it comes with its own curses]
Recently, the app launched a new feature called the NYC Subway Rat Detector, which tells users how busy a certain subway station is in terms of recorded rat activity. By asking users to report rat levels at a given subway station through an in-app questionnaire called “Rate-my-ride,” Transit can garner real-time insights at the station from its 1.2 million New York users, as the developers explained in a newsletter they sent out earlier this month. This data doesn’t just get shared with fellow riders and app users, but with the app’s transit agency partners, too.
Will it lead to change? Maybe. The last time Transit riders were asked to tattle on the state of their stations, some of the dirtiest Big Blue Bus stops in Santa Monica, California got a much needed clean-up.
The rat dashboard addition certainly did not go unnoticed. Many TikTok users have since highlighted this update. One such video posted by user @smokulani received more than 1 million views.
“The results are in. And the rats? They’re everywhere,” Transit noted on a web post explaining the feature. Through their research, they found that Manhattan boasts the most rat sightings out of all the boroughs, and the rattiest station in New York is the Grant Av A stop, followed by the Harlem 1 2 3 stop, and the Woodhaven Blvd E F M R stop. They’ve also ranked stops with the highest frequency or number of rat occurrences.