Blogging for America

Beyond the Hackathon with Philadelphia’s Apps for SEPTA

People have been building transit apps for years, and there is no shortage of good ones to use, regardless of where you live.

There is certainly no lack of talented developers in and around Philadelphia willing to chip in and write code. But with only 24 or 48 hours to spend, hackathons need to focus on sparking ideas and building prototypes. Refining the user experience, implementing user metrics and otherwise “finishing” applications for wider use are all important things that can sometimes slip through the cracks.

One of the most important followups is publicizing these apps, putting them into the hands of citizens.

It’s rare that government entities publishing open data will actively promote the applications built upon that data back to the people they serve. It’s a deficiency noted by many in the open government world, and may simply be a reflection of where we are in the evolution of open data. Perhaps we’re just not there yet, but there is hope that we soon will be.

The transit authority that serves Philadelphia, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA), is one of the most progressive in the country when it comes to engaging with developers. Fall 2011 saw the first Apps for SEPTA, a weekend-long hackathon focused on building applications with SEPTA’s data and APIs. One of the more noteworthy aspects of this event was the regular presence of SEPTA personnel: they were on hand to help out, answer detailed questions about their data and APIs and to provide encouragement when needed. SEPTA personnel and outside developers worked shoulder to shoulder over the course of the entire event.

Just over a year later, the SEPTAdev Google Group is an active forum for discussions and improvements, at least 26 applications (not to mention countless experiments and prototypes, including a Kinect-powered) use SEPTA’s transit data, and showcase events give nontechnical agency officials a chance to see how providing this data leads to  — all of it powered by open data and the sweat equity of a local developer community that wants to make its city better.

Now, this community is turning its attention to outreach efforts that put these apps into the hands of SEPTA riders.

Beginning this week, Philadelphia’s Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) is actively promoting two applications for passengers to check live train status from their phones. These two applications were chosen because they are free to use, the code is open source, and together they serve riders with any kind of mobile phone.

  • Baldwin is a smartphone app that lets users easily check regional rail times from their mobile web browser. Visit baldwin.ph on your phone to get started.
  • SEPTAlking provides live regional rail status by voice call or text message at 215-987-5418. Start texts with your departure station, such as “Market East” or “30th Street Station.”

What’s interesting about this experiment is that it touches on an area of civic apps where we don’t have a ton of good information yet. The hope is that active promotion by SEPTA will make more people aware of these apps, encourage their regular use, and collect user feedback. This will go a long way toward informing people in the open government and civic hacking communities about what works, and the best ways to evolve civic apps and data. It’s an enormously important undertaking.

If you ride a SEPTA regional rail line, be on the lookout for some cool new adverts about phone and mobile applications that can make your commute more convenient. While these initial outreach efforts focus on regional rail, future outreach will focus on additional modes of transit: buses, subways and trolleys.

One hundred posters, like the above, have been distributed across regional rail trains. A short video clip will also play on digital displays in selected trains and stations.

Note: This post was co-authored by Mark Headd and Michelle Lee.

Code for America Labs, Inc is a non-partisan, non-political 501(c)(3) organization. Content is licensed through Creative Commons.