Apps to Help the Visually Impaired, Organize Subway Musicians and Coordinate Customer Complaints Win Prizes at M.T.A. App Quest and Hackathon
Robin Chou, a 25-year-old developer originally from California, had not slept all night, and he was starting to feel it.
He had been up furiously coding for an app at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s App Quest hackathon, in which his team was developing a way to use the voiceover function on mobile phones help the visually impaired find their way around subway stations.
They had until 4 p.m. to finish developing their app and present it to a panel of judges. It would include a representative from AT&T, the company funding the cash prizes and helping host the event, as well as the M.T.A.
Chou was on a team of seven pulled together by Kristin Loeb. She had come to the hackathon, taking place in the Polytechnic Institute of New York University, early Saturday morning wanting to build an app that would make life easier for the visually impaired. Their team was one of about dozen that were competing for $10,000 in prizes, which would be awarded that evening.
On Sunday afternoon, just a couple of hours shy of the 4 p.m. deadline, the team crowded around Chou to see if their app was working. Chou was trying to demo the app, which simulated a person underground using the iPhone’s compass to find the exit. Chou double-tapped his phone, and a voiceover played.
“You are facing the northwest elevator.”
The team erupted in cheers. This is what they had been working toward for over 24 hours, and it was a thrilling moment for them to see that what had been a germ of an idea when they first got to the hackathon had developed into almost completely functioning app.
“We’re surprised that it worked,” said Chou.
He had made a career change six months earlier, and moved across the country to work for a start-up as a developer. Chou was completely self-taught, and said that developing and programming was something he’d always had a passion for as a kid. Not only had he helped build the entire back-end for his team’s app, called Accessway, but he’d also found the time to work on another app called NYC Live Bus, which told a user when buses would be arriving.
“And he helped me,” said Bill DeMuro, a developer from another two-man team that was working nearby. His partner, Phil Wedo, had in fact just woken up from a catnap he’d been trying to take on the floor next to him. DeMuro had run into some issues with the app his team was building, so Chou had charitably spent some time helping him with the code.
“One of the benefits of these type of events where you may not be the best coder in certain areas, but usually you can find someone who’s willing to help,” said Kevin Miller, another one of Chou’s teammates. “We understand how frustrating it is.” Miller also added that coding was incredibly complicated, especially when using such large data sets as the ones the M.T.A. was providing.
“A lot of people don’t understand from a development standpoint how difficult it is to implement something that would seem like simple functionality,” Miller said. “Mainly because they don’t understand the process of how data flows through an application.” He said that programming was very powerful as it meant you could do anything, but that that also made it a lot more complex.
“You have all these different things you have to be worrying about that aren’t obvious to the front-end user,” he said, “or the person giving you the data which is just like, ‘Oh yeah, display this.’”
Elsewhere in the student lounge at the N.Y.U.-Poly, where the teams had gathered and spent most of the night, frustration was apparent as the deadline inched closer. Two brothers, Allen and David Gleyzer, had come to the hackathon together and were part of a three-person team. Their app was called Transit Trackers, and was meant to show subways moving across a map in real-time. David was working on the presentation for the judges, while Allen was building the back-end. David hadn’t saved the changes he had recently made.
“You should always save,” Allen said, looking over his brother’s shoulder.
“Yeah, but like, I made minor changes.” David answered. “OK, successfully recovered, hoping that’s true.” The Gleyzers waited a moment.
“It is not true. All of my changes are gone, perfect.”
Nonetheless, Transit Trackers was almost working. Janne Makela, the third teammate, came into the room at that point, and the two brothers filled him in on their progress.
“OK, this is it, the moment of truth. Are you ready?” Allen asked his teammates.
Allen held his phone up to show them what was happening. Their app was definitely working. Little green 5-train signs were making their way through Brooklyn on Allen’s phone screen.
“We could actually do more trains,” he said. “The problem is it has to process a lot of data, so it takes some time to load because it’s not optimized.”
Sharing their table was Doug Kelly, who had been working on a map that would visually show planned subway service changes. He said he’d stayed all night too, which he added had probably been stupid. He’d tried to get a little sleep around 7 a.m., but had only managed about half an hour or so.
“I don’t know if I’ve gained weight or lost weight in the past 24 hours,” Kelly said.
“Same here,” Allen said.
Around 3 p.m., people started filing into a classroom near the student lounges, where the presentations were to be held, to test out their presentations and the technology to make sure it all worked. Each team went through this very quickly, all eager to get on with the final leg of this two-day long hackathon.
“No one’s really showing off their work yet,” Kelly said. “I mean, it’s too late to steal someone else’s idea now.”
Proof of concept was a phrase that was being tossed around a lot. Teams were trying to prove to AT&T and the M.T.A. that even if their app wasn’t completely functional yet, the concept was there and all it needed was to be developed just a little, which could be done with time and money.
Around 3:30 p.m. the room was buzzing. The judges started arriving. They included Marissa Shorenstein, AT&T New York president; Craig Stewart from the M.T.A.; Rachel Haot, New York City’s chief digital officer; and Sree Sreenivasan, Columbia University’s chief digital officer, among others.
At 4:00 p.m., an organizer made an announcement.
“Alright everyone, it’s 4 o’clock. Thank you very much.” The participants were instructed to go to the classroom next door to present their apps.
Each presentation lasted three minutes with two minutes for questions from the judges. By 6 p.m., everyone had finished presenting, and all that was left to do was wait to see what the judges’ decision was.
“It’s over,” Allen Gleyzer said. “I can sleep tonight.”
Eventually, the judges came back out and announced the winners. Accessway won third place. Another team, made up of four students from N.Y.U-Poly, won second place. Their app was called M.T.A. Sheriff, and was a way for subway riders to register complaints about broken turnstiles or accidents. First place went to SubCulture.FM, an app that registered all musicians officially allowed to play in the subway into an easy format for a subway rider to access. (You can read more about them in our previous coverage of the hackathon.)
Shorenstein had been very impressed with this app in particular, saying that she always heard great music in the subway, and that it was nice to see an app that gave more legitimacy to the underground musicians.
“I think it will bring a sense of community among these artists,” she said.
“The highlight was clearly the enthusiastic participation of the teams,” said Sreenivasan, “and they had lots of original ideas.”
He said it was nice to see that no two winning apps were clones of each other, or just a slight improvement on already existing apps. He added that he thought this contest was an important one because of how fundamental transit is to life in New York.
“Having information, and timely information, is critical to living life in the city,” he said.
R. Luke Dubois, associate professor at N.Y.U.-Poly who’d originally had the idea for the event, could not be more pleased with its success.
“I mean, a team of our undergrads won second place,” he said.
He added that he hoped the event would mean the teams that developed the apps would continue to work on them, and optimize them, especially for the next part of the contest, which continued into the summer. An additional $40,000 could be won by anyone who entered the second stage, which would be a global, virtual hackathon. For DuBois, the real end goal was getting a working app into the real world.
“None of this stuff counts until it’s in the app store,” he said. “If you’re one of the challenge-winners, the idea is you’ll be incentivized to take it to the market.”