Civic Hacking Hampton Roads Transit, A Rider’s Tale

Since last year members of our local Code for America Brigade have been gnawing away at a raw real time bus feed from Hampton Roads Transit with aspirations of improving the way valuable public transportation information is presented; to decision makers, to interested citizens and ultimately to the people who care most about it, bus riders.

As is often true in these circumstances, the good folks who work to make a domain technology better seldom are experts in the domain. This is changing some but the general circumstance is universal and not likely to change much. Technologists shouldn’t have to be domain experts. That doesn’t scale. What that means for this story is that the coders mostly aren’t bus riders.

In the case of public transit, though, it makes a lot of sense to me, personally, that I explore more opportunities for improving information technology for HRT by using HRT. I want to learn how to use the bus. Even 26 years ago I hated learning to driving in Virginia Beach because “sprawl & crawl” is not fun to drive. I want my daughter to learn how to use the bus. There’s a decent chance she’ll be attending school in both VB and Norfolk next year (a distance of about 15 miles). For parent’s who can’t or don’t want to become a taxi the default solution is to buy their kid a car. Hopefully they car pool. There are a lot of reasons why I don’t want this to be the only option.

So, today I took the bus to a local coffee meetup. I wasn’t confident I’d be successful. Riding HRT buses is an expert domain. I’d failed before. The cost of failure is missing things or at least being very late. But not today. Today was a perfect experience so I wanted to share it, share why it matters to me and why it might matter to you.

I started my morning as usual but made sure I had some extra time to  get to my destination about 4 miles away. I wanted to ride my bike and have it with me but I didn’t want to ride it to the meetup. I really don’t know much about the trip except that I want Route 20 and that it’s a time of day when it’s likely to be running frequently.  I use the HRT Buses smartphone app built by our brigade to start my trip.

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I’m at home. Bus 2001 is headed my way.

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Shoot! I forgot that I need to let the dogs out. Guess I’ll head to the stop and check for the next bus. Maybe I’ll have to bike to the meetup after all.

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Looks like I missed bus 2001 but bus 2046 is close. I notice that it’s 11 minutes late but I don’t really care because I can see that it’s close. I’m already at the stop.

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Before the bus arrives, I realize I don’t know how to use the bike rack on the front of the bus. While I have a couple of minutes, I decide to look it up on my smartphone. I found it right away and there was a simple diagram to teach me. I was skeptical because most of the necessary information HRT publishes on the web isn’t optimized for web, much less mobile.

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Yep! There’s the bus now. (Actually I realize that it’s Route 28. I’m on Route 20, which is about 5 cars behind.) It turned out that the bike rack on the bus had a slightly different locking handle mechanism than the instructions. The friendly driver got out and helped me, adding maybe 15 seconds to the stop. I also didn’t have exact change. That added some time as the driver wanted to ask the other riders if they had change for me. The fare was $3.50 for an all day pass. I had a $5. I said “don’t worry about it.” That took another minute or two.

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I’m on the bus. My realtime location is slightly ahead of the realtime report of the bus. Not too bad considering the bus location is delivered through a feed from the bus to HRT central and back out to a public feed about every 30 seconds…and then we have to process it into the app. Sure enough, the bus is now reporting that it’s 13 minutes behind schedule. That’s probably the two minutes I added.

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I made it to the meetup on time and was the second person to arrive. (I thought it was interesting to note the different styles of shoes were were all wearing.) Overall it was a pleasant experience. I learned some things about riding the bus and I got my civic tech geek fix.

Now, if this is the first time you’ve read or heard me talk about HRT Buses and/or you know a thing or two about bus riding and transit apps you’ll realize there are a some circumstances specific to this scenario. I’m not going to get into all that here. Hopefully it suffices to say that we understand the nuances, too, and are always striving to improve our apps and make them more accessible to more people on more devices.

If this sort of thing interests you then you should join our local Code for America Brigade by attending one of our weekly meetups that alternate between Norfolk and Virginia Beach.

This Hampton Roads Events Calendar Goes Up to 11

Events are important to communities, cities, regions and anywhere else there is a sense of place and activity. Communities and groups that want their events published online typically submit them to multiple event sites and local media outlets. This is a lot of work for low yield yet people do it anyway because they think there isn’t any alternative. Now there is an alternative. (It’s actually always been available but is so technically wonky & esoteric most wouldn’t know what to do.) By publishing your event calendar to a web address, free, open source software developed by Microsoft researcher & evangelist Jon Udell will collect your events, categorize them and return to you a web page and widgets you can drop into your website like this:

You can use the drop-down menu on the right to pick a category but I’ve taken the liberty of embedding a few here:

Art

Music

High Schools

Sports

Government (Public Meetings)

Recap of HRVA Civic Hackfest

It’s been a couple of weeks since we wrapped up the first ever HRVA Civic Hackfest and I’m long overdue for a recap of events and outcomes. There’s a silver lining around the cloud of communication, though, because the work has continued and continues to get more awesome.

To review: we hacked over three days and nights on public data from City of Norfolk Cultural Affairs and Hampton Roads Transit. We used a “civic hack-a-thon” model organized by the new Code for America Brigade to do the work. Three challenges were put the the developers and designers who answered our call for civic heros. During the event these civic hackers sprinted toward simple apps they could deploy over the weekend. This was particularly a challenge for the HRT data since it was still in a mostly “raw dump.” More than an app, we needed an API.

iArtNorfolk

iArtNorfolk shows the locations of Norfolk public art relative to your location

HRVA Civic Hackfest yielded a winning app in iArtNorfolk. iArtNorfolk is a mobile, geo-aware interface to Norfolk’s existing public art data. Other teams also created a Ruby interface to the HRT bus data and a time adherence layer over HRT’s General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS). The Ruby interface makes it easier for Ruby developers to use the data. Adding time adherence to GTFS means that riders can see how well buses on routes are sticking to their normal schedules.

All participants were awarded 30-day passes from HRT. All participants who presented their results received GoPass365.

As great as all that was and is, some of the most exciting aspects have unfolded since the event.

Norfolk Cultural Affairs will award $1000 to the iArtNorfolk team to host and maintain the project. Other city leaders are also interested in the project and want to know how mobile apps for Norfolk can invite the 500,000 expected visitors to OpSail to explore the city.

HRT Buses

Real time locations of buses on Route 20

And finally (for now), we published a mobile & web app that shows the real time locations of HRT buses! The app shows the locations of by route on a Google map, together with each bus’s direction and time adherence (on time or minutes late).

If you want to know who all of these amazing people are to make this all happen, check out the guest list for the event, the email forum, and the git hub. There you’ll find citizen developers, city officials, data reporters, and all sorts of civic minded hackers who are working together to understand and improve the interfaces to Hampton Roads using the web and government as platforms for innovation.

If you want to participate, go to HRVA Brigade at brigade.codeforamerica.org, create a profile, and join the email forum. (Everything is public in case you want to follow along without participating.)

HRVA Civic Hackfest Kickoff

Welcome to HRVA Civic Hackfest! Your participation is heroic.

This event marks the first step in a journey toward making Hampton Roads smarter through “the people and the power of the web.”

Our goal, which cannot be reached by a single event, is to transform the way our region uses the web to improve our quality of life. Our region needs infrastructure to operate. Just like roads, rail, and ports are a part of our physical infrastructure, the web is our digital infrastructure. The region may or may not need more or different or better technology but it does need a civic web in order to reach the goal. Let’s build Hampton Roads’ civic web, together.

Our challenge with this event is to lead the way by doing, through civic hacking. Think of it as innovation in public service and economic development for Hampton Roads.

An intangible outcome of HRVA civic hackfest will be greater awareness among participants of the opportunities and challenges of the goal. Local governments and communities will always be outmatched by more sophisticated private sector technologies and ambitions. Yet demand for new and better services is always high. Complaints when things don’t work will never go away. But government is not a vending machine for consumer citizens. It is an infrastructure to be maintained by citizens and it can be a platform on which to build powerfully positive things.

The practical outcome of HRVA civic hackfest is that we’ll make useful things for the web and mobile using public data. We will improve the region’s civic web this weekend.

HRVA Civic Hackfest has three challenge areas:

  1. Public transit
  2. Public art
  3. The regional stormwater system

Transit Challenge

Against all odds, Hampton Roads Transit went out of its way to publish real time bus data on the web for public use. Our challenge is to create mobile and web apps that answer the questions “where’s my bus?” and “when will my bus be here?” using this data. HRT publishes other useful information for riders that is not optimized for the web or mobile phones. Ever try to look at a route map on a smart phone? Forget about using a text & voice only phone. Let’s change the status quo. By improving access to and usability of HRT’s data we can make the transit system work better for everyone; riders, administrators, and taxpayers. Win. Win. Win.

Art Challenge

Norfolk Public Art Commission produced a wealth of content about public art located throughout the city. The data describes art installations through location and multimedia. Our challenge is to improve the mobile and web interfaces to this data. Create better maps. Create an app that shows “art near me.” Create walking tours that link map directions to art locations and their descriptions. It’s art. Be creative. Making apps with public art data enriches experiences in the city for both residents and visitors.

Stormwater Challenge

Every first Saturday in June for the past 29 years, thousands of volunteers have turned out for Clean the Bay Day. The event was started in Virginia Beach and now reaches every state in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Over 7500 people are expected to turn out this year. One major impact these volunteers can have is to clean out the storm water system. Our challenge is to give volunteers tools that will enable them to become environmental reporters and watchers using their mobile devices. Create an app that will collect a picture, a location, and a brief description of a clean up spot and populate it to a map in real time. Create an app for “adopting” storm water drains so people can take responsibility for cleaning them and reporting on their status.

HRVA Hackfest

Calling all coders, designers, and product people in Hampton Roads Virginia. Let’s use our talents to do something awesome together by hacking for HRVA.

From Friday, March 2nd to Sunday March 4th we’ll jam on some really cool projects.

We’ll deploy & use Public Art Mapper to create maps and walking tours of public art in our area.

We’ll modify Adopt-a-Hydrant into Adopt-a-Drain so civic-minded residents can help clear our storm water systems before and after major storms.

We’ll convert Hampton Roads Transit data into useful apps for laptops, tablets, and mobile devices. If we’re really lucky we’ll have a real time API of bus location data at our disposal.

Prizes and recognition will be awarded to teams who deploy. Register now!

Register for Event