I’m in Soho.
There isn’t a lot of tree cover in Manhattan. The rain falls straight from the clouds, to hit you on the head like that was its only purpose. It’s offensive. I’m looking for an ostentatious glass covered building that looks a lot like the rest of the ostentatious glass covered buildings in NYC. I was running a little late to this thing, but only by minutes. I missed nothing.
AngelHack — A community organized public “hackathon” that gets thrown once a year. The short of it — two floors of random nerds mess around with as much tech as they can get their carpal tunnel’d hands on, for 24 hours straight. At the end of it, you show off what you’ve got. Maybe you got something, maybe you don’t. There’s a bunch of categories to compete in. Amazon was one of the sponsors of this shindig, and there were some prize Echos for the team that won Amazon’s heart, by using as much Amazon tech as possible. I wanted an Echo.
I’m trying to shake as much of the rain off of myself, as I make my way through the main floor. It was setup to be a wide open presentation room, and people were everywhere. It should have taken longer to find my peoples — but while I was tiptoeing to look over the crowd, I heard- “yo, Aaron”. Apparently I was already standing next to Sergio Prada, Thomas Deatherage, and Sean Yesmunt.
So what’s this all about..? We don’t exactly know just yet... That’s kind of the point of a hackathon. You show up and see some stuff, maybe learn some stuff, maybe build some stuff, maybe win some stuff, maybe start a business… in 24 hours.
At first, people from companies give some presentations, and talk about stuff they want you to play with. You don’t have to — you can work on whatever you want, but you get to play with some company’s tech for free. Maybe they get something usable out of it, maybe you get prizes.
It’s busy in here now. The companies have set up display tables, and have people there to talk about the company’s tech. It’s also a small warehouse sized room full of people chugging coffee, pulling tech gear out of bags, and diving into whatever project they already had planned for the next 24 hours. The AWS Loft is two floors of gigabit wifi, coffee and snack stations, and space to squad up and build some stuff. When everything first starts — it’s a friggin madhouse. Comfy couches to hunker down and work, are harder to snag than a poolside cabana on the rooftop of [trendy social club I can’t afford].
Through the commotion, me and these three nerds meet a company called Coord. They aggregate mobility data. That means they put together information about how people travel, in a given area, over time — so you can maybe use it to learn things about what delays people’s commutes. Or, how bike friendly the city is. Turns out they look at data from… blah blah blah, more nerdy conversation happened for like an hour. When nerds who built something they think is cool — talk to other nerds who also think that thing is cool — we’re like the Golden Girls. Nobody really moves that much. We just sip coffee and question each other’s decisions for half an hour. Then, thank you for being a friend…
Thomas is totally Blanch. Sergio might be Rose.
Then we had an idea. It seemed so simple. We’d make an app that gets you a ride… The extra was that we’d let you put in a destination — and we’d show you all the mobility options you’d have available to you. You could take an Uber, or a Lyft, or a Gett, or this bike share down the block… and how much it would cost. Then you could choose the cheapest one. Why not? Who doesn’t like to save money? Maybe you find you like greener modes of transportation, like biking. A month later, weight you didn’t know you had, is falling off. Your pants are loose enough now that they get caught in the bike chains, when you’re cutting taxis off during rush hour. You need new pants, and every cabbie hates you — but you’re getting everywhere on time, and you don’t sweat climbing your three story walk-up anymore.
We had a great idea. It was so simple. Google was doing this at the time on Google Maps, actually. When you mapped some directions, a couple of options were available to book the ride with Uber($$), or Lyft($$). And the options would redirect you to whoever. We were shocked there wasn’t an app for this already. I mean, Google Maps did it just fine. The thing about an “app” is that it’s a simple gesture for you to do a specific thing. Most of the apps you use, have website counterparts— But you use the app because it’s a simpler process. This is why apps are so successful.
We called it Lamppost.
We went to work. Divide and conquer. App interface design, microservices scaffolding, API integrations, cloud infrastructure. We were the A-Team, the Rescue Rangers, d’Artagnan and The Three Musketeers — even though we shared ownership respectfully, and encouraged collaborative input instead of a unilateral hierarchy, because we’re super woke…
We built a snazzy little app, this Lamppost... It took your destination, and displayed some options for you. Uber, Lyft, Juno, and Gett. We were actually able to interface with Uber and Lyft, to get price quotes, the same way Google was doing it for Maps. Juno and Gett we faked, because we only had 24 hours to build this thing. Also because they didn’t have systems to interface with. In fact — we built the app interface, a couple NodeJS microservices, and wired the whole thing up on Amazon’s cloud. It was live… In the world, on the internet, and you could use it. We deployed it in 24 hours, and we’re going to demo it by just using it at www.lamppost.app the next afternoon. Holy crap, this is coming together!
Then someone happened to have a chat with some of the dudes at Coord.
What do you mean we’re not allowed to do this???
Coord is a Sidewalk Labs product. Sidewalk Labs is an Alphabet Inc. company. Alphabet Inc. might sound familiar, because they also own a little company called Google. Now we’re getting into another heavy Golden Girls session at like the 16th, of 24 hours. Turns out the thing Google Maps does to put up Uber and Lyft’s price options, does not sit well with Uber. I don’t remember where it was in the terms of service for using Uber’s systems back then — but today you can find it at the top of their API documentation.
It comes before the “Introduction”.
So, we built it. But did we really?
We can’t keep it this way, or we’re violating the terms, and our access to get Uber quotes will be turned off. Which means we’d end up with only Lyft quotes if we kept this thing online. Which means our app was basically the Lyft app, but then it made you open the Lyft app to book the quoted ride anyway. We’re actually adding an unnecessary step for Lyft customers, instead of building a new green world order, where people travel smarter, save money, lost weight, and bought new pants…
It was a 24 hour dream that went up in smoke, like a Texas fireworks factory in the dead of summer.
We still put on the demo. Got a few ‘wow’s from the crowd. Made some business peoples’ eyebrows raise. Until I got to the part about “oh, but it turns out we can’t legally do this, actually… but yeah, we think it’s a great idea.”
The app itself was built on some solid infrastructure tooling. We got brownie points for putting the entire app up with AWS Fargate. Which was new tooling at the time. So, in addition to brownie points, we won the Echos :)
My lesson here was that profitability is a higher priority than common sense solutions. Isn’t the whole point of capitalism to foster competition, and drive costs down?
Who knows… I just stopped using Uber. I mean, I also have my own car, so it’s not like I really ever used Uber to begin with. I guess you need to have the problem, in order to be motivated to fix it these days.