This Week in Civic Tech: Hacking Public Transit, Open Data Inhibitors, Philly Tinkers with Voting App

A look back at highlights and happenings in the world of civic tech.

by / September 18, 2015
Hack My Ride 2.0 Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority

This Week in Civic Tech presents a lineup of notable events in the space that connects citizens to government services. Topics cover latest startups, hackathons, open data initiatives and other influencers. Check back each week for updates.

Hacking Silicon Valley Transit

Anyone who’s been trapped in a slow-moving subway car or has missed a connecting train knows the frustration that goes along with those experiences. Passengers ask what the holdup is, which is followed by more questions that propose possible information-sharing solutions — for example, “Why wasn’t I notified trains would be late, or about the construction?”

The improvisational analysis is something the Santa Clara Valley Transit Authority (VTA) hopes to harness in a transit-based hackathon that wraps up in October. Branded as Hack My Ride 2.0, the challenge recently announced 12 finalists attempting take home part of its $30,000 in winnings.

Many apps leverage the VTA’s new Bluetooth iBeacons, one of which is called Cashless, a solution that uses bluetooth beacons on buses so passengers can pay for their ride automatically from their smartphones. As an added benefit, the app can record personalized boarding data for the VTA, a feature that would allow the transit authority to reward regular riders, make operational decisions or create policies based on analytics.

Voting on the apps is open thorugh Oct. 7 at 5 p.m. Pacific time, and will be announced Nov. 3.

Open Data Inhibitors in Los Angeles

A new open data report of 88 cities in Los Angeles County says that while open data is crucial, funding is limited and performance metrics are scarce. The study, Empowering the Public Through Open Data, was released this month from a collaboration between the University of Southern California Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership & Policy and the USC Price School of Public Policy.

The report notes that while the region is a leading open data adopter, barriers remain. From most to least, the cities rated finance, technical expertise, buy-in from city departments and political support as top inhibitors of open data projects.

Still, nearly all cities said open data was a priority — in fact, 76 percent of responding cities said it was at least a moderate to high priority. The top benefits to opening up data, according to the report, are its ability to improve officials' internal work, enhanced efficiencies in answering information requests, and additional tools for data-driven decision-making. Trailing these, cities listed internal department data requests, civic hacking, revenue and job creation in the private sector as additional pluses.

Code for Philly Creates Voting App Prototype

The Code for America brigade Code for Philly is tinkering with a new voting app called VoteWise. The app is in an early prototyping phase at present, but has ambitiously set its sights on the Herculean issue of campaign finance reform. VoteWise wants to reduce dependence on advertising dollars in politics, a need that can compromise politicians who must make promises to corporate funders and special interests. The idea behind the app is to be a platform that connects voters to political candidates. It does this through free polling for politicians, a section for Q&A for citizens, crowdsourced editorials on issues, unbiased explanatory resources like a “politician-to-voter dictionary” and a forum for discussion and debate.

Code for Philly would like to employ a matchup function for VoteWise similar to the dating site OkCupid in which users are questioned about their political stances, and then an algorithm would match them with the candidate that most mirrors their beliefs. The team is still looking for volunteers to move the project forward, asking for coding aid in languages like PHP, HTML, CSS and more, but they anticipate the app's debut will be soon.

“We are getting so close to our alpha launch,” said project leader Spencer Snygg. “A lot of great work done so far. A lot of great work yet to be done.”

Jason Shueh former staff writer

Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.