On Saturday, June 6th 2015, Code for New River Valley hosted Blacksburg, VA’s first National Day of Civic Hacking event. Despite perfect summer weather, ten developers and five community members gathered in a conference room at Rackspace’s office in the CRC to build software that could help solve civic issues.
The day started with a continental breakfast and an introduction to the three challenges curated by Code for NRV and the Town of Blacksburg. The group eagerly broke into teams and started digging into the details of each challenge. Steve Jones, CIO of the Town of Blacksburg, was on hand to help everyone understand some of the challenges and help brainstorm possible solutions.
Challenge 1 — Transit
Transit was the most popular challenge of the day. Blacksburg Transit already provides a real time bus tracking app and an API, so it’s a perfect target for hackathons. To sweeten the pot, the agency provided the team with three years of detailed historical transit data. After some discussion, the team decided to focus on improving the accessibility of the real time data through two approaches.
One developer worked on a program that would use the agency’s proprietary real time API to generate a GTFS-Realtime feed — an open data standard that can be consumed by a number of other applications. The hope is that having this feed would make it possible for riders to use transit apps other than the one provided by Blacksburg Transit. Another developer experimented with potential changes to the user interface of the Blacksburg Transit mobile app, looking for ways the user experience could be improved.
By the end of the day, the transit team demoed an updated UI for the mobile app and a GTFS-Realtime vehicle position feed. Code for NRV will continue to implement GTFS-Realtime and to provide feedback to Blacksburg Transit as the agency makes changes to their mobile apps.
Challenge 2 — Safe Walk Blacksburg
The Blacksburg Police Department, in partnership with the Virginia Tech Police Department and a number of organizations both on-campus and in-town, has a program called No Hokies Left Behind that encourages students to take an active role in making sure everyone gets home safely after a night out at a party or a bar. The program also points students towards apps that help track a friend or find a bus. A few months ago, Code for NRV began work on a project called Safe Walk Blacksburg. The idea is to use public data about speed limits, sidewalks, and street lights to help students identify the safest route to walk from point A to B late at night.
Volunteers had been making progress on the app at hack nights, but this hackathon provided a much needed kick to what has turned out to be a complex challenge. New developers joined the existing team and made some incredible progress. GIS data provided by the town was transformed and loaded into a database that will serve as the backbone of the app. Using this data, developers created a number of maps, including one that showed every street in town as red, yellow, or green depending on how fast the speed limit was. Another map colored the streets based on whether or not they had a sidewalk.
There is still a lot of work to be done before this app becomes usable, but volunteers and town officials are excited to see the result of this great work.
Challenge 3 — Park Finder
The region has a number of excellent public parks and trails, but despite their close proximity, a complete list does not exist. Instead, locations and details are spread across a number of local government and organizational websites. A number of volunteers spent the day crawling these websites and collecting details on local parks and their amenities in a single spreadsheet. Thanks to their efforts, a dataset now exists that will allow Code for NRV to build a mobile friendly park finder app that will encompass the entire New River Valley.
After working from 10 AM to 4 PM, barely stopping for lunch, these incredible volunteers presented some impressive demos. Development will continue on all these projects at Code for NRV’s regular hack nights, and in time, these projects will become free apps and websites that each make life in the New River Valley just a little bit better.