Rob Smith, a software engineer for Amazon.com, suffers his share of frustrations with his daily Seattle commute.
“I’ve waited for a bus for more than 45 minutes, looking for one that can take my bicycle,” he says, pausing to explain his motivation for helping try to find technological solutions to commute headaches.
The problem Rob and three other volunteers are trouble-shooting is that each King County Metro bus has only three bicycle slots. That means the fourth cyclist has to wait for the next bus.
“You can have a stack of 10 to 12 cyclists during the summer,” adds another volunteer, Dan Liebling, a software engineer at Microsoft Research. “It causes huge delays for cyclists.”
Rob and Dan were part of a team, called Bikeraxx, that competed in Seattle’s “Hack the Commute,” a weekend event in which data analysts, developers, designers, and other innovators designed their tools to improve the day-to-day experience of the city’s bus riders, bicyclists, walkers and drivers.
The event was organized by the city of Seattle and Commute Seattle, a coalition of business and government groups with a shared interest in moving people and products efficiently through the city. It’s sponsored by Microsoft Technology and Civic Engagement, which was formed to help cities find creative ways to address some of their biggest problems.
Bikeraxx is a great example of that roll-up-your-sleeves creativity. They came up with a unique solution to the tie-ups bicyclists face at city bus stops. “We built a demo on how this can work,” Rob says, pointing to a circuit board housed in a small, green cardboard box. “Sensors don’t have to be expensive.”
“Intelligence doesn’t have to be expensive,” Dan adds.
Max Golub, another member of the team, is a University of Washington student who also works at Silicon Mechanics, which makes servers and other hardware. He explains that the little green box contains an Intel Edison development board. The team rigged it to an ultrasonic range finder and plugged the contraption into a smartphone, in order to access the phone’s camera, processor and network connection.
“It’s a simple system that detects when a bus arrives, takes pictures of the bus and uploads them to the cloud for analysis,” Rob explains. “It could be delivered through the metro transit app, OneBusAway, or as an API to plug into other applications.”
Dan adds that cyclists trying to take buses need information in order to make the right decisions, a need that motivated his team’s work over the weekend. Transit agencies also need quantitative data to plan their service delivery. At the end of the event, someone inquired how the same idea might be applied to measuring how many pedestrians are waiting to walk on to the ferry.
The Bikeraxx team, which also includes Alex Gingras, a super-smart Microsoft Civic Tech Fellow and UW student, presented their solution along with 16 other teams, made up of tech professionals representing the Puget Sound’s small to large technology companies. They competed for one of the top three spots that advance to the competition’s Championship round April 29 at City Hall. Bikeraxx received an honorable mention from the judges for “Best Hardware Hack,” and Seattle’s Chief Technology Officer Michael Mattmiller encouraged the team to continue the pilot. The three Hack the Commute teams that advanced to the championship round April 29 presented terrific first steps toward solutions that make it easier for disabled people to find accessible transit; help newcomers to Seattle find neighborhoods with better commute options; and make carpooling simple and intuitive.
It was an honor to join with other members of the tech community over the weekend and to see the creativity and energy that comes when we roll up our sleeves as a group and contribute. Seventy volunteers put in a combined 3,228 hours over the weekend on behalf of Seattle commuters. And it was a pleasure to serve as a judge and to announce the three finalists.
Hack the Commute was a terrific example of the energy the Seattle mayor’s office has brought in bringing the tech community together with government agencies, including the Washington State Department of Transportation, SoundTransit, King Country Metro and community groups such as the Seattle City Club, Seattle Neighborhood Greenways and Cascade Bicycle Club, who were all partners in the event.
A big thank you to our Microsoft employees who volunteered over the weekend, including Dan Liebling of MSR; Greg Bellinger, a product licensing manager for Cloud Services; Graham Thompson of Technology and Civic Engagement; and our Civic Tech Fellow, Alex Gingras. In addition, thank you, Ana Pinto da Silva, a senior UX designer, who mentored four teams. We look forward to the championship round in April!