STiR Profile: Streamlining Transit Data in Memphis, Tenn.

As part of this year’s Startup in Residence program, the Memphis Area Transit Authority is working with Urban SDK on a project that could help streamline data for more than 600 similar transit agencies nationwide.

The Memphis Area Transit Authority (MATA) collects data, a lot of data in fact, with the help of multiple systems from multiple vendors.

For MATA, collecting data is not a problem. What is a problem, however, is the speed with which it is able to get that data to folks who need it — a list that includes the local government in Memphis, the public and even the agency’s own leaders. Getting these stakeholders fast access to data in an easy-to-read format is logistically unwieldy. There are so many disparate sources, mechanisms of collection and systems of management. To solve this challenge, the agency is one of more than 20 government entities participating in this year’s Startup in Residence (STiR) program.

STiR is a nationwide innovation facilitation program, one that embeds startup companies within state and local government agencies, where they spend time working together on technology-based solutions to overcome obstacles. The idea is that the close partnership will lead to private-sector expertise helping government solve problems. The entrepreneurs essentially volunteer their time for the chance to create and test products within government, still a somewhat untapped market for tech companies.

In an ideal STiR scenario, the product a company creates for one government agency will be scaled for use elsewhere. This is certainly the hope of the entrepreneurs who are now working with MATA. In posting its initial challenge
, MATA noted that its data sharing troubles were far from singular, citing as many as 600 other transit authorities nationwide that could benefit from a streamlined solution for organizing and sharing their data.

To potentially solve this problem, STiR has paired the government group with a startup called Urban SDK, a predictive analytics and data streamlining company based in Jacksonville, Fla. For the next four months, MATA and Urban SDK will be working together to develop a solution that enables quick and simple sharing of all of the transit authority’s data.

To understand how far the work has to go, one must first look at where MATA and its data practices stand now. As is largely standard for governmental bodies, the organization is a bit behind, said John Lancaster, director of planning and scheduling for MATA. In fact, anachronisms within the agency include things like storing data in separate spreadsheets, or, in some rare cases, using paper-based practices.

Overall, crucial information such as transit data, ridership statistics and other performance metrics that could be used to drive evidence-based decision-making are mostly siloed, kept in separate places and decentralized. If done properly, a new streamlined system could enable near-real-time sharing of data that gets as granular as the number of riders who use certain public transit routes at given times of day. These types of performance measurement insights can be invaluable, said Lancaster. The other concern of this work is to provide the data in a way that meets requirements set by the Federal Transit Administration’s National Transit Database program, which is also applicable to the hundreds of other authorities throughout the country.

In regards to the logistics of the work, Urban SDK’s Justin Dennis and Drew Messer, who make up the company’s leadership team, noted that this kind of data streamlining is something they’re already doing. They’re currently working to build a data integration and management platform that meets MATA’s and its partners’ needs. The trickiest part of the entire collaboration for them, at least so far, was forging a pathway into government.

Both Lancaster and the leadership team at Urban SDK said this wouldn’t have been possible without STiR playing the role of facilitator. One of the ongoing improvements that STiR seeks to foster in the startup-government collaboration process is an easier way to handle the Request for Proposal (RFP) and procurement process. In fact, the program has converted its application system into an actual RFP.

Jay Nath, co-executive director for STiR’s managing organization, City Innovate Foundation, recently described the application as a “rapid RFP,” noting that it generally takes a company less than an hour to complete one. This is a far cry from how MATA used to search out collaborative vendors, doing so, Lancaster said, with advertisements in local sources that don’t have national reach and almost definitely wouldn’t have caught the attention of a company in Florida. STiR’s RFP process was improved for the company as well.

“It was much faster to get to the relationship than traditional public-sector RFP processes,” Dennis said. “STiR gave us the opportunity to actually speak with the decision-makers here in Memphis before deciding who we wanted to work with, and that type of transparency is not typically available in your usual RFP process.”

STiR started back in 2014 as an initiative located in San Francisco. Over the years, it expanded regionally within California, before launching its first national cohort in 2018. This year, more than 700 companies participated in the rapid RFP process, offering up their expertise to 22 participating government agencies.

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine