Paratransit Pal won $40,000 at AT&T’s Atlanta Civic Coding Challenge and gave it all to charity

Left to right: Nerando Johnson, Brittani Smalls, Erick Garcia, and Ann Vu with a large novelty check for $40,000. Not pictured: Jared Saussy and Mark Noonan.

Some Background

In 2017, a team that formed in Atlanta’s civic hacking community created Paratransit Pal to enter AT&T’s Civic Coding Challenge. This article provides a very general overview of our journey so far. In the future we plan to go into more detail about how we identified the problem we worked on, how we ran the project then vs now, and where things are going.

Paratransit Pal is a prototype web application to make information about paratransit rides available to consumers in the clearest way possible. For those who haven’t heard the word before: “paratransit” refers to the curb-to-curb service provided to people with disabilities who find it hard to use regular mass transit options like busses and trains.

Many paratransit riders have developmental or cognitive issues that mean they are not well served by complicated user interfaces, and need the same information displayed in multiple ways in order to understand whether their bus is early, late, or on time. They also may have memory or safety concerns beyond those of the typical mass transit rider.

Left to right: Danny Alexander, Mark Noonan, Nerando Johnson, Brittani Smalls, Esterling Accime, Ann Vu, and Darshan Gulur Srinivasa at the second MARTA Hackathon in February 2017. This was the first time many of us had met. Darshan is an iOS developer who developed an iPhone version of the Mobility ETA app at the first and second MARTA hackathons — there is a whole other article to be written about how Darshan’s work kickstarted this project. Danny was with us at the second hackathon and helped create a web front end based on MARTA’s existing apps. And Esterling Accime is just one cool dude.

Forming a Team

Our eventual team of six met through Code for Atlanta events, including some hackathons run by Code for Atlanta and MARTA (Atlanta’s transit agency) in 2016 and 2017, and many civic hack nights along the way, where we developed a pilot program with MARTA that focused exclusively on improving their user interface for paratransit trip information. This project’s momentum really starts at the first MARTA Hackathon, where Joshua Thornton and Darshan Gulur Srinivasa did amazing things at a whiteboard to turn Mark and Nerando’s various conversations into a specific solution that we all then worked on.

(This is an aside, but: The technology team at MARTA was very supportive in teaching us about how things work in the industry, keeping lines of communication open between hackathons, and encouraging us to get a pilot up and running in the real world. Torrey, Darrell, Kay, Lila, and several others were a big help. This took time and patience from the organization and should be applauded!)

It’s worth a minute to point out that we are not all programmers, and among those of us who are programmers, our skill levels vary. There’s much more to a project like this than writing code, and our criteria for forming this particular team were mainly just “be interested in the idea, and want to work on it, and have the time.” Roles emerged based on skills people already had (research, project management, web development, etc.) and, maybe more importantly, skills people wanted to learn or level up in.

For some of us, Paratransit Pal was basically our first ever software project and we had to learn and teach each other on the job. This process was really fun, and made the whole thing worth it for us, even if we weren’t going to win anything.

Designing the Product

Though we cut our teeth with MARTA, Paratransit Pal is a standalone product that can be independent of any particular transportation provider. The AT&T Civic Coding Challenge gave us the chance to use Smart City technology (especially live data from GE’s Smart Nodes) to improve the accuracy of estimated vehicle arrival times, and provide riders with one-button options to create rich incident reports, as well as explore new options for displaying information in a clearer way and at the right time for the user.

Jared Saussy, Mark Noonan, and Eric Garcia drinking coffee and writing code, safely indoors on a sunny day.

We talked about features as a group and sent UI ideas back and forth on Slack, allowing people to quickly give feedback on screenshots or demos as we worked. This is one area where having some non-programmers on the team came with an extra bonus — we didn’t all have the same assumptions about what we were making and how it worked. Our diverse backgrounds and expectations around what the app should do helped it get stronger, faster, so it would be ready by the submission deadline.

Deciding to Donate the Winnings

As we thought about the competition and put the team together, we had to decide, just in case, what we would with any winnings. We realized how much of our expertise and knowledge about what to do in this space came from meeting and talking with other volunteers and MARTA representatives at Civic Hack Nights and hackathons. It didn’t feel right that, if we won something, only the current team members would walk away with prize money.

Even though Paratransit Pal is substantially different to what came before, we wouldn’t have ever gotten so far without help from people who are no longer involved. People who maybe don’t even know how much they helped (e.g. we got a lot of useful advice about tracking people on the transit system from somebody who works on baggage tracking systems for airlines). So in the end we decided to direct any winnings towards non-profits that we all agreed on and felt would generally be approved of by our many helping hands along the way. Problem solved!

The Competition

Ann Vu and Brittani Smalls working on some User Interface ideas

The Civic Coding Challenge had a qualifying stage, by the end of which we had to show a working demo of the software and create some marketing and business-plan materials. This early stage really helped us to make progress and clarify our goals and technical choices. Having to “get it working” long before the final event was challenging and involved more than one late night’s work, but was ultimately very helpful.

After surviving the qualifying stage, all the teams had a few weeks to get ready for the final event: a Shark Tank-style pitch competition in the AT&T Perch at the freshly-completed Mercedes Benz Stadium in Atlanta. This was a time to polish the app, push hard on ideas we hadn’t executed yet, and think about what we would present at the final: we would have five minutes to talk about our app and the problems it solves.

The team worked really, really hard on making the most of that five minutes. One thing about a project like this is: you’re possibly not going to win, or even place in the top three. It’s a gamble, and being on stage talking about the project might be the only thing that happens. So we decided to present as a group. This can be trickier, but having a minute’s experience in front of an audience in that environment is a useful, weird experience. You might as well say yes to useful, weird experiences when they come your way. So everybody who wanted to be part of the stage presentation took a topic, and we built our five minutes around the individual contributions and voices of the four speakers. We also worked on physical items: flyers, business cards, stuff we could hand to the judges to emphasize that our project was serious.

We checked out some resources on public speaking and rehearsed as best we could the morning of the final, passing around a microphone and trying not to stumble over our words.

Left to right: Erick Garcia, Brittani Smalls, Mark Noonan, and Ann Vu getting ready to speak on stage at Mercedes Benz Stadium.

The event itself was nerve-wracking. We were the first finalist to present our idea, due to one of us having to travel right after the presentation. Things were definitely not perfect: there were technical problems with the bluetooth clicker for our slideshow (Nerando came to the rescue and ran the slideshow from the house perfectly!), and the stage was a little smaller than we expected so we didn’t really know where to stand. But our preparation paid off: we said the words we meant to say, in the right order, and when questioned by the judges on technical or conceptual issues, the team had great answers.

Results, and What’s Next

It was, of course, a surprise to win anything, and an even bigger surprise to win first place and $40,000. All of the other projects has merit and were interesting in their own right too. But somehow we came out on top, and have donated roughly $16,000 each to People Making Progress and disABILITY LINK, both nonprofits helping people with disabilities in the Atlanta area, with the remaining funds scheduled for supplies and coding education in Erick’s hometown in Mexico. 🙌

Erick Garcia, Brittani Smalls, Nerando Johnson, and Ann Vu.

We still work on Paratransit Pal with a view towards cutting a path to a better experience for people with cognitive disabilities trying to find out about their ride and take care of themselves in the community. This phase moves more slowly, as we pay attention to what else is out there in the industry and where we can make the most impact, as well as build relationships and listen to the consumers and service providers who would actually use the product.

In the coming months we plan to share what we are learning about this field, as well as reflect on other parts of the story so far and what it has taught us about software development and accessibility in general. To stay up to date, follow us on Medium or our @paratransitpal Twitter account, and check our website, paratransitpal.tech!