Boston: There's An App For That

By Jess Bidgood

Feb. 22, 2011

A group of students, programmers and Code For America fellows gather at Microsoft's NERD center in Cambridge to brainstorm new uses and improvements on Boston's civic data. (Jess Bidgood/WGBH)

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Last summer, the MBTA unleashed a small revolution for people who spend minutes — even hours — waiting for the bus.
They released a stream of data that used GPS technology to track the location of all of its busses. Within days, developers created a number of applications that allowed smart phones, like iPhones or Androids, to tell users when their bus would arrive.
But Steve Hershman has a big problem with those applications.  

A screen shot from the PocketMBTA iPhone app, which predicts arrival times of MBTA busses. Some developers are working to make those predictions more accurate.

“So, I have a dumb phone,” he said, referring to his basic, regular, non-smart, non-fancy cell phone. “It drives me nuts that all my friends (with smart phones) can figure out where the bus is, but I can’t.”
He’s in the right place to tackle that problem. He’s sitting with about a dozen other programmers, students and data-heads at a long table at the Microsoft New England Research and Development center — NERD for short — underneath a futuristic-looking neon tube light.
They’re among a growing number of individuals dreaming up new possibilities for Boston’s civic data — basic streams of information on topics ranging from the city’s sidewalks, to school busses, to building shadows to that MBTA bus data. And they’ve all gathered at Code For America’s DataCamp, a low-key afternoon dedicated to thinking up new ways city data can make people’s lives easier.
Max Ogden talks excitedly with just about everyone there. A Code For America fellow who helped organize the event, he’s a longhaired, bearded computer programmer and something of a civic data evangelist. He says we’re just beginning to imagine all that we can do with the city’s numbers.
He and his team chat about their main project in Boston, which is to help the city use ID cards given to Boston Public School students to generate data about their extracurricular activities, grades, MBTA usage and more. That could help educators unlock why some students are successful and others aren’t.
Hershman, who is getting a Ph.D. in systems biology at Harvard, has never played with civic data before, and he seems a little sheepish. “I haven’t hacked around with local data, and I kind of wanted to, and I figured that would be a fun thing to do on a Sunday,” Hershman said.
And, even though some people have been in this room for five hours, it is fun. The room echoes with fingers hitting keyboards — but also with lively conversation. Two people compare GPS tracking in Ghana to that in Boston. Another woman is there to offer programmers advice on how to patent their work.

Across the table, David Crosbie and Michael Cox are discussing their work to make current data more reliable. They’ve noticed that mobile apps that use the MBTA’s GPS data don’t always predict the right time for the bus’s arrival.
In their view, those inaccuracies stem from the fact that apps connect to the MBTA’s “firehose” of raw data each time you ask them to make a prediction.
“It helps if you do that once, and if you do that with a nice big brain, rather than if you do that on your little cell phone,” Crosbie says.
He and Cox want to take the T’s data and make it into a format that’s much easier to understand — using their own prediction model.“So we take the cow, and we slice it up and we hand it out in little burger,” Crosbie said.
Mmm. Real-time data sliders. Yum.
There’s nothing formal about this day, no official goals or set of outcomes. But Ogden wants it that way. He’s hoping that, one project at a time, the city’s policymakers and programmer-hacker types will realize how much they have in common. “People want to help make their cities run better, but they are not clear on avenues to do so,” Ogden explained. “We want to figure out how to let the community that lives here interact with (the city) over time.”

Programmers, students, hackers and people from all walks of city life will gather again this weekend at Boston Globe Hack Day.

Your comments: What kinds of apps would make your life easier?

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