Monday, July 13, 2015

Seed Project: Transportation-Focused Civic Hacking

Today’s post takes a look at transportation civic hacking.

Per the long list of transportation hackathons at the end of this post, this seems like a globally popular topic, so I’d like to encourage a few NE Wisconsin people to consider working on these types of civic hacks.

In “Seed Projects For Civic Hackathons” I covered how seed projects can help make hackathons more fun and assist growth of the civic hacker community.

In big cities, or areas near big cities, trains and subways are subjects of civic hacking. In the future, aircraft might be another type of transportation to work on, especially for pocket airports as described in this Gizmodo article and in this CAFE Foundation PDF. But for NE Wisconsin in 2015, those megacity transit systems aren’t something civic hackers usually need to work on. We’ll primarily focus on cars, buses, bikes and the other topics listed below.

In this first post about this topic, we’ll take a brief look at a dozen general transportation topics. If any NE Wisconsin civic hackers want to work on transportation hacks, they should contact Bob Waldron at bwaldron (at) gmail [dott] com. We’ll talk, decide on a few Next Steps, and I’ll write a few more transportation hack blog posts about the topics they're interested in.

  1. Buses
  2. Cars
  3. Trucks
  4. Motorcycles
  5. Bikes
  6. Electric bikes & scooters
  7. Walking
  8. Parking
  9. Road closures and road work
  10. GTFS, GPS, GIS, mapping & miscellaneous
  11. People to involve
  12. Hackathons and fun hack ideas


Buses are the primary public transit option in NE Wisconsin. I don’t have any idea if the bus systems in our region have any problems that would benefit from civic hacking. But if we organize a transportation-themed hackathon, it seems like we ought to have someone working on bus data and bus issues.

Taxis could also be considered a public transit option for our region. I didn’t find much of anything related to civic hacking on taxi issues, so working on that topic would probably happen only if we find a civic hacker who uses taxis or is aware of a big problem with taxis that they want to tackle.


Cars are probably the most-used transportation vehicle in our region (the category of ‘cars’ generally referring to cars, pickup trucks, and sometimes motorcycles). Because of the volume of car traffic in NE Wisconsin, it seems like there ought to be a few civic hacks to solve car transportation problems. One idea getting traction in some cities is ride-sharing using 2015 technology to update the pre-Internet ride-board concept.


Transportation hacks involving 18 wheelers and other commercial trucks would often be the same ones dealing with cars. The biggest hack specific to large commercial trucks would probably be related to routes designated as not for trucks, or routes that trucks are supposed to use when going through a city.


Motorcycles hacks would mostly be related to the hacks developed with cars in mind. There might be a few motorcycle-specific ones such as motorcycle parking, charging facilities for electric motorcycles, or scenic routes for motorcycles.


Bicycles in some cities are looked at as a major means of transportation, but in NE Wisconsin they are generally used for recreation. Civic hacks involving bikes are most likely to be initiated and worked on by hard-core biking enthusiasts, by someone who uses their bike to ride to work, or by a person who wants to incrementally improve the overall sustainability and eco-friendliness of a city.

Electric bikes & scooters

Electric bikes are becoming more common from a global perspective, although I don’t see too many electric bikes around NE Wisconsin. Scooters seemed popular a couple years ago when gas prices just kept rising, but with the currently-low prices for gasoline, it seems like scooters aren’t as common as they were a few years ago. Plus the Wisconsin winters mean that scooters aren’t a good year-round option. If someone in this area knows of a civic hack they want to work on for electric bikes or scooters, I’ll be glad to help in any way I can.


Some transportation hackathons include walking hacks because it is one form of transportation, especially in very large cities or relatively small cities. I’ve known people from New York City who never had a driver license or owned a car, and when I lived in Arcata, CA, last year, I walked almost everywhere. NE Wisconsin doesn’t have a pressing need for bipedal civic hacks, but a few people might be interested in working on recreational or scenic trail walking hacks.


Because our region’s standard method to get to a destination that’s more than a half-mile away is to get in your car or pickup truck and drive by yourself to the destination, parking is in important issue. Most NE Wisconsin residents expect either ample free parking at or near their destination, or low-cost metered parking convenient to wherever they’re headed.

A couple civic hacks for parking could involve working with OpenStreetMap to show what type of parking is allowed in the cities where there are limited time slots (e.g. two hour parking), metered parking (cost, time limits, ability to pay or reload with coins, credit/debit cards, smartphone, etc), parking ramps, etc.

Another parking hack would be to show all the handicapped parking spots available, and contact phone numbers for special parking arrangements when the handicapped spot is associated with a specific organizations (e.g., there was limited handicapped parking at Lawrence University for our June 6 hackathon this year, and it would have been nice to see the handicapped spots by the Warch Campus Center and a phone number to call for questions regarding those spots).

Road closures and road work

There has been a fair amount of road work and road closures in our area, as well as in the rest of the country, the past few years. To address problems caused by all this road work, the Orlando, FL, civic hackers recently worked on improving the info available to drivers about road closures. We could look into ways to make road work information more easily findable and viewable in a better format. I’m sure that people driving through road construction areas every day would have  of other good civic hack ideas, as would the people who are planning and doing the road work.

GTFS, GPS, GIS, mapping & miscellaneous

Only two types of transportation-related work was being done at the June 6 “DHMN Civic Hackathon/Appleton 2015” as far as I know. One person was working on the GTFS (General Transit Feed Specification) data set provided on the city of Appleton GIS webpage. According to the Google Developer webpage,
A GTFS feed is composed of a series of text files collected in a ZIP file. Each file models a particular aspect of transit information: stops, routes, trips, and other schedule data...A transit agency can produce a GTFS feed to share their public transit information with developers, who write tools that consume GTFS feeds to incorporate public transit information into their applications.”
In the miscellaneous category, a group of three or four people at the June 6 event were working on transportation-related civic hack -- trying to figure out the best way to reduce excessive noise from train-crossing warning horns, especially at night. In addition to technological steps, such as installing miniature sound sensors by especially-problematic crossings, the group also brainstormed potential solutions involving social media and working with city officials to highlight the train noise problem.

People to involve

To maximize the value of NE Wisconsin transportation civic hacking, and to make it the most fun for those working on this topic, we need to reach out to people deeply involved with the transportation issues we’re focusing on.

For general transportation hacks, or for ones specifically focused on cars and road work, we should have representatives from the Wisconsin DOT, county highway departments, and city departments of public works. If we’re doing a well-organized transportation hackathon, it would be fun to also have the US DOT involved.

For bus hacks, we should have people very knowledgeable about GTFS (city people, local transit or bus organizations, like Valley Transit or Green Bay Metro), GPS ninjas, GIS people, mobile app developers knowledgeable about Twilio or services for easily connecting phones with real-time data feeds. We should also have at least one or two power users of the bus systems in the area. The tech aspects of real-time GPS feeds from buses may be interesting to coders, but if they never or infrequently ride the bus, those coders probably don’t have a firm grasp on what smartphone apps or capabilities would be most used by bus riders, or what the user interface should look like.

Above all, before organizing a major event for transportation hacking, we need to some pre-work, getting at least two or three transportation projects started. When setting the date for a transportation-related event, we should make sure the team leads for those transportation hacks will be able to participate on the chosen date.

Hackathons and fun hack ideas

To get your mind percolating on this topic, here are potential activities or hack ideas related to transportation:

  • Read about a bunch of transportation hackathons to get ideas for transportation hacks or for a NE Wisconsin transportation hackathon (see list of hackathons at the end of this post).
  • Transportation hacking kick-off activities, e.g. Saturday bus road trip (a few hours riding around the city; wifi or cellular hotspot on buses?), bus trip between NE Wisconsin cities, mesh-network-connected multi-vehicle roadtrip between cities (Tim Bertram-style Wifi-In-A Box), brainstorm or ideation session at The AvenueHQ or Appleton Makerspace or ?? to identify problems that need hacking, workshop about basic tech tools for transportation hacking, etc.
  • Organize an informal transportation hackathon focused on the two transportation topics worked on at the June 6 civic hackathon.
  • Field trip to a city that has real-time bus GPS data, e.g. Madison, and learn more about how it’s used.
  • Find, fork, and localize transportation hacks developed outside NE Wisconsin
  • Develop a FOAK (first of a kind) mesh-network orange construction barrel system with sensors and wireless communication, especially for multi-mile construction zones
  • Transportation challenge hackathon sponsored by companies who employ or recruit large numbers of developers (e.g. Robert Half sponsored a Greenville, SC, transportation hackathon).
  • Reach out to potential participants, partners and sponsors for a well-organized future transportation hackathon in our region.
  • Start planning a NE Wisconsin Transportation Civic Hackathon for 2016 (see list of hackathons at the end of this post).

I hope the information above prompts a few local civic hackers to start working on transportation hacks in our area. Let me know if you have questions or want help getting things rolling for improved transportation in NE Wisconsin.


Here’s a list of some of the transportation hackathons done in other areas:
ReRoute AVL Hackathon -- Asheville
TransportationCamp South -- Atlanta, GA
Athens Hackathon for Transportation & Open Data -- Athens, Greece
HACKAKL: Transport -- Aukland, NZ (also and and
UCBerkeley Travel Ideas Hackathon
Smart Transportation & Energy Hackathon -- Berlin, Germany
Cairo Transport App Challenge -- Cairo, Egypt
Mass Transportation-Future Hackathon -- Cambridge, MA
Chattanooga Transportation Hack-a-thon (also
Chicago Logistics Hackathon
SWFL Transportation Civic Hackathon -- Fort. Myers, FL
iMAGINE Upstate Transportation Hack-A-Thon -- Greenville, SC
NDoCH Transportation Hackathon, Hartford, CT (also
Reboot The Commute -- Honolulu
Jersey City and Newark Transportation Hackathon
Leeds Transport Hackathon -- Leeds, England
Transportation@MIT data hack-a-thon -- MIT
STM Happiness Hack -- Montreal, QC (Société de transport de Montréal)
BMW Sustainability Hackathon -- Mountain View, CA (also
MTA and AT&T: App Quest -- New York City
Apps for Philly Transportation: Hackathon -- Philadelphia, PA
Phoenix Transportation Hackathon -- Phoenix, AZ ) and
Intel IoT Hackathon: Transportation -- Portland, OR 
ReRoute/SF -- San Francisco (also
[freespace] Transportation Hack -- San Francisco
São Paulo Mobility Global Challenge -- São Paulo, Brasil
Hack the Commute -- Seattle
Hack My Ride 2.0 -- Silicon Valley
Transport & Youth -- Singapore (also
NSW Roads Hackathon -- Sydney, Australia (also
Hillsborough Transportation Hack-a-thon -- Tampa Bay, FL
Toronto TrafficJam Hackathon
Transport Hackathon -- Wellington, NZ


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