Tran­sit data gets techies’ gears spin­ning for new apps

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY KATHER­INE SHAVER

In a 10th-floor meet­ing room in Crys­tal City, Ma­lynda Chizek Frouard rode a red Cap­i­tal Bike­share bike to the front of the room as about 60 fel­low techies and trans­porta­tion buffs watched.

She had come to share her new Web site, CaBiBrags.com, which al­lows Cap­i­tal Bike­share users to com­pete for the high­est mileage.

“I’m pretty sure I win the ‘Queen of the Nerds’ award tonight!” said Chizek Frouard, 31, a res­i­dent of Bethesda, point­ing to the bright-blue as­tro­naut cos- tume she’d worn in the pre-Hal­loween spirit.

It was the ideal place to em­brace one’s in­ner geek. Af­ter all, Chizek Frouard’s au­di­ence was the Trans­porta­tion Techies — a group of com­puter coders, ur­ban plan­ners, grad­u­ate stu­dents and self-de­scribed trans­porta­tion nerds from across the Wash­ing­ton re­gion. Mem­bers gather at monthly “hack nights” to eat pizza, drink beer and share cool ways they’ve used gov­ern­ment data to bet­ter es­ti­mate Metro train ar­rivals, find the clos­est park­ing space, plot the fastest

walk­ing routes and pre­dict when busy Bike­share sta­tions will run out of bikes.

“I wanted to cre­ate a place where coders could nerd out com­pletely,” said pro­gram­mer Michael Schade, 52, who cre­ated the group via Meetup.com two years ago. “At the end of the day, it’s just a show and tell of re­ally cool stuff. . . . We’re build­ing a com­mu­nity of peo­ple who care about th­ese things and want to use th­ese tools.”

With more than 1,130 mem­bers, the group em­braces the con­tin­ued evo­lu­tion of civic hack­ing, par­tic­u­larly as more gov­ern­ment agen­cies con­clude that shar­ing their data can pay off.

Some trans­porta­tion of­fi­cials say they wel­come any­thing the tech world’s cre­ative, en­tre­pre­neur­ial spirit can con­jure up to feed the pub­lic’s hunger for the lat­est, savvi­est way to plot the fastest, eas­i­est trip. More­over, they say, techies usu­ally cre­ate th­ese Web sites, Web apps and smart­phone apps for free — and far more quickly than the slug­gish gov­ern­ment pro­cure­ment process would al­low.

“I try to come to as many of th­ese as I can,” Daniel Mor­gan, the U.S. Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion’s chief data of­fi­cer, said af­ter the Oct. 19 Bike­share hack night. “This is a great place to learn. It’s dif­fer­ent peo­ple think­ing about prob­lems dif­fer­ently but all try­ing to make the sys­tem work bet­ter.”

Kim Lu­cas, the Dis­trict’s Cap­i­tal Bike­share pro­gram man­ager, said that techies’ dig­i­tal maps show­ing Bike­share trips across the city have helped her spot trends that weren’t as clear in her Ex­cel spread­sheets.

“We get in­ter­est­ing anal­y­sis for free,” Lu­cas said. “It’s great to see what an­other set of eyes has seen when they see your data.”

Ev­ery agency that adds new GPS de­vices to track its buses or ve­hi­cle coun­ters to mon­i­tor traf­fic con­ges­tion pro­vides more data to mas­sage for trends and anom­alies.

“The sys­tems are pro­duc­ing tons and tons of data,” said Schade, who lives in the Dis­trict and works for Tran­sitScreen, a D.C. com­pany that shows re­al­time tran­sit op­tions on video screens in build­ing lob­bies. “How can we play with it? How can we tell sto­ries out of it?”

Tech in­ven­tions that have been shared at hack nights have in­cluded such smart­phone apps as MetroMin­der DC, which shows where trains are bog­ging down, and Park­ing Panda, which lets driv­ers re­serve spa­ces in park­ing garages.

One pre­sen­ter re­vealed an Orange Line train-ar­rival board he’d built for his Ball­ston apart­ment. Two oth­ers showed how they tapped into pub­lic Of­fice of Per­son­nel Man­age­ment data so their alarm clocks au­to­mat­i­cally ad­just when the fed­eral gov­ern­ment an­nounces a two-hour de­lay, al­low­ing them to sleep in on snow days. An­other used data from Metro and Ma­jor League Base­ball to in­stantly de­ter­mine when she could catch the next train to a Na­tion­als game.

Most of the projects don’t re­sult in big busi­ness ven­tures, and few are well-known. It’s dif­fi­cult, techies say, to stand out in the crowded field of tran­sit and traf- fic apps. Many say they sim­ply wanted a fun cod­ing chal­lenge or a per­son­ally tai­lored travel plan­ner.

Nico Sta­ple elicited know­ing chuck­les from the group when he shared the Web app he de­vel­oped, cabi.nicosta­ple.com. It shows red, orange or green lines sig­nal­ing how likely he is to get a bike or park­ing dock at the clos­est Bike­share sta­tion.

“I’m pretty sure I’m the only one who uses this app — me and the two friends I told about it,” said Sta­ple, 27, a Dis­trict res­i­dent.

Mor­gana Carter de­vised her when-to-leave-for-the-game tool be­cause she was too lazy to look up sev­eral Web sites. (She said she had to change the URL af­ter Ma­jor League Base­ball sent her a “cease and de­sist” let­ter for pre­vi­ously us­ing the league’s trade­marked “MLB.”)

“It evolved shame­lessly for my own needs and wants,” said Carter, 29, who re­cently moved from Columbia Heights to Port­land, Ore. “Google Maps doesn’t tell me if the Nats are at home or what time the O’s game starts. I wanted some­thing where I could just hit ‘re­fresh’ and get every­thing.”

Fed­eral agen­cies in­clud­ing the Na­tional Weather Ser­vice and Cen­sus Bureau have shared their data pub­licly for years

(www.data.gov), and ci­ties in­clud­ing the Dis­trict have open­data por­tals (open­data.dc.gov). Many tran­sit agen­cies, in­clud­ing the Wash­ing­ton Metropoli­tan Area Tran­sit Author­ity, have pro­vided Google Maps with com­put­er­ized train sched­ules since the early 2000s.

But the con­cept of “civic hack­ing” — us­ing gov­ern­ment data to im­prove com­mu­ni­ties or solve prob­lems — has taken off across the coun­try over the past five or so years, ex­perts say. Civic hack­ers have been spurred on by non­profit groups push­ing for more “open data” and com­puter tools, such as map­ping soft­ware, that have be­come cheaper (or free) and eas­ier to use.

“Gov­ern­ments are shar­ing more will­ingly,” said An­drew Hy­der, an engi­neer for Code for Amer­ica, a San Fran­cisco non­profit group that pairs com­puter pro­gram­mers with city gov­ern­ments. “There’s more data now.”

In the Wash­ing­ton re­gion, techies say, Cap­i­tal Bike­share helped set a new stan­dard when it launched in the Dis­trict five years ago. From the be­gin­ning, the pro­gram’s op­er­a­tor has been re­quired to pro­vide quar­terly sys­tem data on its Web site, in­clud­ing de­tails of ev­ery Bike­share trip.

Howard Jen­nings, man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of Mo­bil­ity Lab, the re­search arm of Ar­ling­ton County’s com­muter ser­vices pro­gram, said more tran­sit agen­cies are over­com­ing their re­luc­tance to let the pub­lic peek in­side their data streams.

“Some of them saw them­selves only as [tran­sit] op­er­a­tors and didn’t see the need to pro­vide data so some­one could de­velop an app,” Jen­nings said.“But grad­u­ally, they’ve said, ‘Wait a minute: Those are our pas­sen­gers, and that’s our rev­enue.’ Peo­ple re­al­ized the ben­e­fits of open­ing up their data — that it’s not go­ing to be a bunch of es­pi­onage.” It also can lead to a free fix. Chris Whong, 34, said he re­cently be­came in­trigued by a Face­book post not­ing that the Mary­land Tran­sit Ad­min­is­tra­tion had cre­ated a Web site, rather than a smart­phone app, to show Bal­ti­more buses’ lo­ca­tions. The news story, posted by Bal­ti­more Brew, quoted the MTA as say­ing it would have cost $600,000 for a con­sul­tant to make the state’s clunky bus data us­able in trip­plan­ning apps.

Whong said it took a few hours click­ing away in his Brook­lyn apart­ment to make the data “more con­sum­able” for app de­vel­op­ers.

“It was just sort of an in­ter­est­ing co­nun­drum that I wanted to help fig­ure out,” he said. “When I’m not work­ing, I’m al­ways hack­ing on some­thing.”

Michael Walk, MTA’s di­rec­tor of ser­vice de­vel­op­ment, said the agency is build­ing on Whong’s work­around to make its bus data more ac­cu­rate and ac­ces­si­ble.

“The re­al­ity is, we don’t con­sider our­selves app de­vel­op­ers,” Walk said. “There are peo­ple who do that very well. . . . They think of ways to solve prob­lems that we might not have ever thought of.”

Re­ceiv­ing some of the high­est marks from techies is Metro.

Even with late trains and safety lapses, the techies say, the agency has read­ily shared train and bus data for years. Af­ter techies com­plained that they couldn’t get sub­ur­ban bus sched­ule data in a stan­dard for­mat, Metro of­fi­cials of­fered to host all re­gional tran­sit data on its Web site in a way that de­vel­op­ers could ac­cess.

Shyam Kan­nan, the tran­sit agency’s plan­ning di­rec­tor, said Metro also asks techies for help iden­ti­fy­ing gaps in its open data. That in­cludes ways to help pas­sen­gers in wheel­chairs plan their trips in more de­tail and ways to make it eas­ier for apps to show parts of the subway sys­tem in red or green, de­pend­ing on how con­gested they are.

Any­thing that helps Metro rid­ers quickly de­cide which train to catch helps clear sta­tion plat­forms and ease frus­tra­tion, he said.

“It’s re­ally help­ful for us for the ‘geeks’ to get to­gether and solve prob­lems,” Kan­nan said. “The pri­vate sec­tor is much more nim­ble and ag­ile when it comes to app de­vel­op­ment. . . . If the pri­vate sec­tor can tell us where the warts are [in Metro’s data], we can fix them.

“And they can tell us what they can de­liver for us.”

Kim Lu­cas, pro­gram man­ager of the Dis­trict’s Cap­i­tal Bike­share pro­gram “We get in­ter­est­ing anal­y­sis for free. It’s great to see what an­other set of eyes has seen when they see your data.”

BILL O’LEARY/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Ma­lynda Chizek Frouard quickly grabs the at­ten­tion of the Trans­porta­tion Techies Meetup.com group dur­ing a gath­er­ing in Ar­ling­ton. The group dis­cusses new ways to use gov­ern­ment data.

BILL O'LEARY/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Ma­lynda Chizek Frouard, right, an as­tronomer, picks a prize out of a pump­kin held by Michael Schade af­ter de­liv­er­ing her pre­sen­ta­tion at the Trans­porta­tion Techies gath­er­ing in Ar­ling­ton. “I wanted to cre­ate a place where coders could nerd out com­pletely,” Schade says.

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