Techies Tackle Transportation Troubles at 'Hack the Commute' Seattle

A civic transportation hackathon will foster transportation innovation in one of the nation's fastest-growing cities.

by / March 18, 2015
Traffic on Highway 99 South in Seattle at the end of the day. Flickr/Marc Biarnès

From March 20 to 22, Seattle techies and activists will gather to tackle transportation at Hack the Commute, a hackathon focused on spawning new ideas and tools that can ameliorate transportation woes amid an expanding urban population and constant construction.

“When we think about Seattle, we’re the nation’s fastest-growing large city,” said Chief Technology Officer Michael Mattmiller. “In the next 20 years, we’re going to grow by 120,000 people, 75 percent of them driven by high-tech jobs. In a city where we’ve already built up so many homes and infrastructure, it’s just not possible to expand our roads every time we see an increase in traffic. That means we need to make smarter transportation decisions.”

Between 80 and 100 coders, designers, data analysts and entrepreneurs are expected to participate in the free event, which is led by the city of Seattle and Commute Seattle. Participants will receive context for the types of problems that need solving, along with prizes and continued city engagement for the best ideas. They will form groups and hear from people like Alan Borning of the University of Washington, who will talk about making transit tech accessible for disabled riders; Brian DePlace from the Seattle Department of Transportation, who will talk about the impact of construction; and Aaron Brethorst, who maintains the popular OneBusAway app.

Judges will recognize the best work at the end of the event, and three winning teams will be invited back to City Hall on April 29 for a “championship round.” The top participants will also receive mentorship from the city so their efforts can be fostered for the greater good of urban commuters, and the winning team of the championship round will be recognized in a ceremony.

Candace Faber, event organizer and CEO of Whoa! Strategies, explained that hackathons embody a wide range, and this one is the most organized she’s been involved with.

“It expands the community we’re engaging with,” Faber said. “I think when we’re designing technology or policies, it can be very difficult to hear from a broader base of citizens, and so putting together an event like this allows us to put together a number of different voices and do so in a really curated, collective way.”

The city budgeted $30,000 to host the event. And beyond funding from the city’s IT department and Department of Transportation, companies like Microsoft, Amazon Web Services, Inrix, Pronto, Socrata and Walk Score will provide funding and data about Seattle transportation. Local startup Moz is physically hosting the event at its offices.

The city compiled what Faber called “a huge data set” using Socrata, which contains more than 100 data sets, APIs and additional resources that developers can access before, during and after the event. The city also created a community on Reddit where developers can plan and organize. 

“We have a very engaged civic community here in Seattle, and we’re so fortunate to be a technology center where we have a high number of developers and those who think creatively about what data can enable,” Mattmiller said. “Those are just resources we’ll never be able to duplicate in the city.”

Colin Wood former staff writer

Colin wrote for Government Technology from 2010 through most of 2016.