Transit data gets techies’ gears spinning for new apps
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.”
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.
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.