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How Transportation Techies built a meetup into a community

We interviewed meetup founder Michael Schade on why he started Transportation Techies, and how he keeps it moving forward.

Michael Schade, with Santa the Hug Timer. (File photo)
When you walk into a Transportation Techies meetup there are two things you are guaranteed to see: the latest hacks of local transit systems, and a crowd of people who seem to care a lot about each other.

The last meetup we attended was the seventh edition of Metro Hack Night in October. It featured nine presenters, two LED projects, and one “hug timer” person who gave presenters a hug when their time ran out. We spoke to meetup founder and organizer Michael Schade on why he started the group, and how he built the community.

Schade is originally from Colorado, where he studied Computer Science. In 1989, he moved to D.C. for a federal job. Today he still lives in D.C., and works as a data visualization engineer at the Center for Advanced Transportation Technology in the University of Maryland.

“It wasn’t until I moved to Washington that I became fascinated by the subway system,” Schade told us during a phone call earlier this week. “D.C. is where I realized you can live inside the urban grid and not have a car at all,” he said.

It was an interest that he said propelled him to join meetups like API and GEO DC — both of which inspired the format he would later use for creating Transportation Techies in 2013. Today the format Schade uses is essentially unchanged: each meeting begins with half an hour of mingling, followed by a succession of show-and-tells, then Q&As from the audience, and then a chance to mingle again afterwards.

According to Schade, this conversation-focused format where everything happens in person is key for fostering a sense of community.

“The goal of the meetup is to build a community of programmers who are interested in transportation,” he said. “We don’t webcast or stream it because the whole point of the meetup is to meet in person.”

That’s not to say the group hasn’t changed over the last four years. When Schade started it, his employer at the time, Mobility Lab, sponsored the meetings and could host 80 attendees in their Rosslyn office. In February 2016, we covered how Transportation Techies began hosting their Metro Hack Night meetings in WMATA’s downtown headquarters after the group began attracting closer to 100 people.

“The biggest change is back in the day I pretty much knew everyone in the room. And now I look around like who are you people?” Schade joked to us.

During the Metro Hack night we attended in October, that didn’t seem to slow him down. Schade transitioned smoothly between nine presenters, including:

  • TransitScreen CEO Matt Caywood, who talked about MobilityScore, which we profiled earlier this fall.
  • Shannon Turner, founder of Hear Me Code, who debuted a way to play with the layout of Metro’s stations with her Metro Map Maker.
  • Tyler Green, a self-described “Urban Adventurer” who tracked how and why train fares increased in NYC.
  • Eric Haengel from the DC Hack and Tell Meetup, who built an LED metro map. And Ed O’Brien, who built an LED strip mapping train positions on the red line using Raspberry Pi and Adafruit. (Both used WMATA’s API.)
  • Recent Ph.D. graduate Ting Ma from the University of Maryland, who is researching how Capital Bikeshare membership affects Metro ridership.


But despite having one of the most active meetups in the D.C. ecosphere, Schade says he still has to hustle to keep people showing up. “If I go to an event and there’s someone with a bicycle helmet in their hand, that’s who I go up to,” said Schade. “We lose people.”

Schade’s methods for convincing people to come (which involve Twitter posts, Meetup updates, and advertising in other meetups), and finding speakers for the events (which involve more twitter research, and spreadsheets) seems to be another key for always delivering a big crowd from the transit-enthusiast community in D.C. At the moment, Schade is hustling for Transportation Techie’s next meetup, Playing with Traffic IV, on Nov. 30. So far the speaker list includes two projects by employees from D.C.-based company Mapbox, which recently raised $164 million.

Schade told us the following meeting in December may feature a Santa-themed hug timer, an annual tradition.

The Santa hug timer. (Courtesy photo)

The Santa hug timer. (Courtesy photo)

In the end, the biggest reason why Transportation Techies has such a strong community may be the one Schade didn’t mention — himself.

Whether he’s moderating meetings with jokes or holiday-themed hug timers, singing homemade show tunes at the Artisphere, or even sharing his home with one member, it’s hard to imagine Transportation Techies without Michael Schade.

“I don’t throw parties at my house. I don’t even invite people to my house,” he said to us at the end of our conversation. “My big social event is throwing the meetup. It’s definitely not work.”

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