Coming Soon to Detroit: Live Bus Arrival Times Via Text Message?

3/30/12Follow @XconomyDET

The horrors of Detroit’s bus system and the hour-plus wait times riders regularly experience are well documented. In a city where so many people are carless, it’s a particularly galling problem. But if all goes according to plan, Detroit Department of Transportation (DDOT) bus riders may soon be able to have live route information sent to their cell phones via text message.

Last month, three Code for America fellows were deployed to Detroit to help the city brainstorm solutions to the bus issue and some of the city’s other nagging infrastructure problems. After spending five weeks fully embedded with city government and community organizations, the fellows have narrowed down their list of potential projects to three that are in the testing and development phase now. First, there’s the matter of getting a list of city-owned vacant properties online in one, easy-to-navigate location. Then, there’s the task of creating a mobile tool for crowd-sourced neighborhood data collection and an online home for the information once it’s collected. Lastly, the fellows want to build the SMS-based DDOT API (smart phones aren’t yet widely used here enough for a mobile app).

“It’s been an incredible experience as we work to make city government more open and transparent,” says Karla Henderson, Planning and Facilities Group Executive in the Office of Mayor Dave Bing. “All of these projects will help the city communicate better with residents. We’re very fortunate that we were selected out of the 20 cities that applied.” In fact, Henderson adds, Detroit’s application scored the highest of any this round and more fellows requested to be assigned to Detroit than any other city.

Code for America is a non-profit based in San Francisco that works with city governments to harnass the power of the web to improve communication and operation. The program attracts mostly young people who have a background in tech, software development, and civic engineering. The three fellows assigned to Detroit are Matt Hampel, an Ann Arbor native and University of Michigan graduate; Alicia Rouault; and Prashant Singh.

“There are an amazing number of people already working on projects to make the city better—we met close to 170 people,” Hampel says. “The challenge is that often the perspectives of the people working directly on an issue are radically different from those working on the periphery.” Hampel adds that the fellows are partnering with a number of local organizations, including Data Driven DetroitLoveland Technologies (which has already made significant strides in cataloging Detroit’s vacant properties), WDET-FM (104.5), Community Development Advocates of Detroit, and the Knight Foundation. Hampel says if the team helps bring a tech mindset to the complex layers of the city’s bureaucracy, then they will have done their job.

The Code for America fellows have until September to create their tools, and Hampel says he’s looking foward to hosting a hackathon in Detroit later this year, where civic-minded developers will be invited to tackle the vacant property issues. In the meantime, Hampel hopes residents will follow the progress of the Code for America team on Facebook and Twitter and weigh in.

The transit issue is one that other cities are already working on. Hampel says the Code for America team will begin with free, off-the-shelf tools that they can quickly re-use. They’re focusing on OneBusAway, already in use in Seattle, as a demonstration platform. All of the software that the Detroit team comes up with will be open source and available for other cities to use to solve similar problems.

“We expect that local developers will step up to use real-time information to build truly useful apps,” Hampel adds. “We’ve seen this happen in cities across the world that provide this data—it’s been a real catalyzing action.”

Sarah Schmid is the editor of Xconomy Detroit. You can reach her at 313-570-9823 or sschmid@xconomy.com. Follow @XconomyDET

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