At M.T.A. App Quest and Hackathon, Developers Compete to Make Transit Work for New Yorkers
Early Friday afternoon, R. Luke DuBois was busy running around the campus of the Polytechnic Institute of New York University (known by everyone as N.Y.U.-Poly) in downtown Brooklyn.
He was preparing to attend a big party to launch the App Quest Hackathon, a weekend of events sponsored by AT&T and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in which students and developers sit down in one long session and compete to create, on the spot, the best apps using M.T.A. data.
But DuBois, an artist, composer and performer who also is an associate professor at Poly and the director of the school's Integrated Digital Media program, was still finalizing the orders for chairs and signing contracts with caterers.
Over 100 programmers and designers are expected to converge at the downtown Brooklyn campus starting the morning of May 4, to compete for prizes as they try to write their way, over the course of 30 hours, through apps that will make the transit system work better for New Yorkers.
This is the first such hackathon he's organized for the M.T.A. (though Poly hosts tons of hackathons year-round in a variety of themes), and the way it happened was almost an accident.
"The idea was to do a class, to get my students developing software for the M.T.A.," he said. "Originally it was less around the public-facing stuff and more around things to help them internally, to make it a sort of research project—what can we do with user-experience design and a little bit of code about how the subways operate internally?"
M.T.A. staff have Galaxy phones, for example, so what if all the internal web-based interfaces M.T.A. employees work with every day could be made available to them?
"We've been running that class this semester," DuBois said. "It's a graduate class with 12 students in it building some software for the M.T.A., and we were going to top it off with a 'hackaday,' or events for the group."
Then DuBois met Neil Giacobbi, New York public affairs director for AT&T, at the Dumbo Arts Festival. They were talking about the class, and the student hacking event he was planning to stage near the end of it. And then Giacobbi suggested something bigger.
"He said we could make this a really excellent public event, and have the students involved but also have developer professionals, and the idea is to amp up the exposure of the M.T.A. to the New York app-developer community, to get them energized around making public transit apps for New York City," he said.
AT&T was able to create the incentives—$10,000 prizes for winners on the weekend of the hackathon and as much as $50,000 for winners in a second phase of the contest—to bring the developers to the table.
"So it started out as this incredibly modest idea and then ballooned into this pretty spectacular thing we're trying to pull off this weekend," DuBois said.
After the kickoff party on Friday night at one of the school's several incubators, at 20 Jay Street in Dumbo, the real work begins.
Developers who come Saturday and start work will face judges on Sunday, and cash prizes will be given out.
But for app developers who want to go another mile, the contest continues in a second phase beyond the weekend, with a series of judging rounds facilitated by ChallengePost.
"You can come tomorrow and compete, you can win something on Sunday," DuBois said. "We would like, if you win something on Sunday, for you to keep working for a larger incentive that we're going to do, or if you can't be here this weekend you can join the challenge and compete for the thing later in the summer. The idea is to get as many people involved this summer as we can."
Two dozen or so of DuBois own students are competing, as well as students from across N.Y.U. he's worked with before, "so I'm rooting for the home team," he said.
What are they looking for?
DuBois was careful not to go into too much detail.
"I have a feeling a lot of the people who come are going to have an idea already and we don't want to hijack their ideas," he said. "There's the meta thing, which is that we want to get this developer community ramped up around transit."
But there are some briefs on the website that lay out particular problem-solving efforts that the M.T.A. is looking for.
"We're asking for apps and sites that demonstrate ingenious uses of the M.T.A. data to empower things like trip-planning," he said. "One of the things the M.T.A. would love is more apps about how to get around, how to easily get around, especially in the multimodal space."
Multimodal, meaning transit apps that integrate not just one system, like the subways or buses, but integrates them all together: subways, buses, commuter rail, and paratransit, for people with disabilities.
"I'd love to see an app that links in the transit system with the CitiBike program," he said as an example.
Then there are bigger questions.
"How can you leverage cellular data—origin and destination data—that just people on the subway can provide, to get up to date information service?" he said.
If there's wifi in the tunnels, "the data from your phones could be broadcast, anonymized so there is no privacy risk, and repackaged. It could be really informative. You'd look at your phone and say, 'Oh, the subway's five minutes away.'"
This would create a pretty elegant end-run, using latent phone data, around the technically difficult and time-consuming systems the M.T.A. has been trying to build in the number-line stations to provide riders with real-time estimates.
"We're also looking for things that integrate M.T.A. assets into the social space," he said.
What if all of our personal trip data, stored on Metrocards, could be used to create a visualization that would allow the M.T.A. see new ridership patterns and redistribute resources, for instance? What if you could track how much your own use of transit is reducing the carbon footprint of the city?
"Everybody loves sexy visualizations, and the M.T.A. is basically a big data problem right now," DuBois said. "If you show us something to look at and we think, 'wow, we've never looked at the subway like that before,' that's big."
DuBois believes this hackathon will advance his school's ongoing partnership with the M.T.A., and that it will prove to the developer community in New York City that making tech for transit is "a place you can make money, a place you can get jobs, and a place you can help your community."