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How James Tyack’s civic app has made SEPTA more accessible

In July, the civic hacker left Philadelphia for San Francisco because his partner got a job on the West Coast. We talked to him about his proudest moments in Philly tech.

James Tyack helped build Unlock Philly, a tool that aimed to make SEPTA more accessible. (Photo by James Tyack)
Civic hacking can make a difference.

Take it from James Tyack, who led a civic app project called Unlock Philly where users could report accessibility issues on SEPTA.
“When we first started recording and sharing the [elevator] outages, we saw up to 10 outages at a time with some elevators broken for two months,” he wrote. “The stats show an improvement over the past year: it’s rare to see more than one or two concurrent outages and they’re fixed quickly.”

James Tyack.

James Tyack. (Courtesy photo)

Tyack, 42, left Philadelphia for San Francisco this summer because his partner got a job at Stanford University Hopsital. We last saw him in August at our Super Meetup at Headhouse Square. He was back visiting friends and hoping to catch fellow accessibility-focused developer Ather Sharif win Geek of the Year at the Philly Geek Awards. (He did.) (Unlock Philly was also nominated for a Philly Geek Award, but in 2014.)
Below, find Tyack’s Exit Interview, conducted via email, where he talks about the successes of Unlock Philly, his favorite scenic route in Philly and why it’s important to build with, and not for people (something our sister site, DC, has touched on).


What kinds of factors were you considering when making the move?
I’ve spent seven incredible years in Philly and can honestly say I’ve never felt so at home and welcome in any other city. The great friends I’ve made will be life-long and I’m sad to leave. I’ll be making regular trips back to see everyone and civic hack with Code for Philly.
What job are you leaving right now?
I haven’t actually left my Philadelphia job as a Software Engineering Lead [for Health Market Science]; I’m fortunate and can work remotely. The great thing is that online tools make it easier than ever to collaborate and be part of a team from any location.
The civic work continues and I’ve been going to meetups with Code for San Francisco/San Jose and plan to continue the work we’ve been doing to raise awareness of the need to make things we build universally accessible.
What were some of your favorite projects that you worked on during your time here? What about some of your proudest moments?
Without a doubt my favorite project has been Unlock Philly; a volunteer Code for Philly project I’ve been working on with some really passionate people [including fam Jim Smiley]. We collect and present transit, venue and park accessibility information
Amongst other things, we present real-time information about station elevator outages. We also store and visualize outage history. My proudest achievement so far has been the improvements we’ve seen in broken elevator occurrence and time to fix. When we first started recording and sharing the outages, we saw up to 10 outages at a time with some elevators broken for two months. The stats show an improvement over the past year: it’s rare to see more than one or two concurrent outages and they’re fixed quickly. If we combine subway and regional rail stations, less than 50 percent are wheelchair accessible to begin with. Subtract elevator outages and we get terrible disruption to lives and opportunities.
I’ve realized through my work with Code for Philly that combining smart technology with data, online maps and accessible visualizations provides a powerful and constructive method to shine a light on problems and help improve things.
Also, I’m proud that the information Unlock Philly provides makes it easier for people to navigate the city and find cool places to visit. Here’s an email I received from a visitor to Philadelphia:

“… your site was so amazingly helpful for my niece and her family! It was really easy to use and great that everything was in map form. It was so nice that [name hidden] got to pick from the options rather than picking a place to go and then checking it out and deciding against it for accessibility reasons. She is 14, and it was a great trip for her!! I haven’t heard how their experience was in NYC yet, but I know her dad was hoping there was something similar there. Anyway, thank you for such a great tool – it was highly recommended by several folks on the list, as well!!”

What I like most about our project is the work we’ve done to foster collaboration across the community. Team members join us and present at hackathons, community need assessments, forums and other meetings. This means that multiple perspectives are being discussed and brought to the table.

Tyack and friends Laura Cohen and Clark Matthews.

Tyack and friends Laura Cohen and Clark Matthews of the Dislabeled Philly Film Series at a Phillies game. (Courtesy photo)

One of our key team members, Clark Matthews, works on many other community projects and I’ve had the opportunity to help out with his Taxis4All campaign to raise awareness of the limited availability of wheelchair accessible vehicles (WAVs) in Philadelphia which has been a lot of fun.
I’ve also had the pleasure of working with our Geek of the Year, Ather Sharif, on some of his initiatives to make the web more accessible. The energy and passion Ather has to build projects and teams that create universally accessible apps and wearables with his EvoHax hackathons is really building awareness with new audiences. [Editor’s note: You can still register for EvoHax’s upcoming Oct. 23 hackathon, which will focus on wearables.]
Getting the opportunity to take what I’ve learnt, and share it with co-workers, schools students and tech community members is a rewarding and fulfilling experience.
I’m looking forward to continuing this work on the West Coast.
What things in Philly are you going to miss the most? 
Indy Hall, Khyber Pass Pub’s vegan Po-boy with mac-n-cheese, the view from the back of the El towards Center City from West Philly, my friends. Also, check out Dislabeled Philly Film Series, a “Philadelphia film screening series organized by people with disabilities to showcase smart, cutting edge media made inside disability, not just about it.”
Hit us with some advice.
I’ve just attended the three-day Code for America Summit in Oakland and the message that resonated the most for me was the importance of “building with, not for people.” Only when we have a diverse team are we truly able to build and test products that meet the needs of the entire community.
I think the amazing work Code for Philly has been doing to engage the community in civic projects has been key to achieving this goal, but we need to keep challenging ourselves to continuously improve by breaking down barriers that prevent or discourage people from accessing our spaces and electronic products.


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