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Reinvent Transit: 7 projects to improve Baltimore city’s mass transit systems

It was Baltimore're first-ever hackathon dedicated to making public transportation more efficient.

Reinvent Transit attendees at Friday night's kick-off.
Full disclosure: Betamore cofounder Mike Brenner, this event's host and organizer, is a partner with Technically Baltimore, which works on occasion from the Federal Hill incubator.

Reinvent Transit, Baltimore’s first-ever hackathon devoted to programming our way to improved public transportation, certainly isn’t the first time a group of tech lovers came together to code out what is seen as a less than adequate bus system. (See: ReRoute/SF.)
But rerouting Baltimore’s transit isn’t the only outcome. An event such as this is community building at its most grassroots—and it had the tangible effect of producing more available datasets on the OpenBaltimore portal.


For two days last weekend at Betamore, members of this city’s tech community mingled with officials from the Maryland Transit Administration, the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance, the city’s Department of Transportation, the Mayor’s Office of Information Technology and others, and ultimately worked on seven separate projects to start to, at least, imagine what improved public transit in Baltimore needs to accomplish.
For instance: it should not take MTA buses upwards of two hours to deliver passengers from the northern part of the city to Canton, as co-organizer Elliott Plack told the crowd Friday night.
The projects and photos are below. All 25 pitches from Friday night are compiled in this Storify.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake was present at the kick-off Friday night talking up Baltimore’s mass transit, and blaming her 43-year-old knees for her inability to participate in the monthly Baltimore Bike Party.
Watch her address the crowd at Reinvent Transit.

  • mta-TWITTERTRON (“Most Potential”): This team of students from American University tapped into Twitter’s API to collect information on what people are saying about the MTA bus system in Baltimore. It’s sentiment analysis via social media, and while Twitter doesn’t pick up on sarcasm all that well (“Man, that MTA bus ride was just BLAZING fast. Like, srsly. LOLZ!”), the team controlled for this by weighting negative tweets twice.
  • Arduino bus hardware (“Most Innovative”): Another team of students from the University of Maryland built a tool for transit agencies, instead of a tool for consumers. They built an Arduino robot with two microphones and two speakers that employs sonar technology to figure out, in real-time, how many passengers are either disembarking from or boarding University of Maryland shuttle buses that travel around the city. Right now the robot just calculates predicted arrival times of buses—which it’s able to do thanks to GPS monitors that some buses in the city, like UMD shuttles and Charm City Circulator buses, are equipped with.
  • On Your MARC (“Best Mobile App”): Forget using the MARC Tracker web app, those of you who must commute by train every day. This mobile app (as of now it’s just a concept) would allow users to track only the MARC route they need to travel every day—as opposed to all the trains throughout the entire MARC system—and would seek to use crowdsourced info from other app users to determine whether or not their MARC train was running on a delay.

Teams at work on Sunday, the final day of the hackathon.

  • Charm City Circulator Visualization (“Best Data Visualization”): Is it any wonder that Chris Whong showed up and created a visualization? He and his team overlaid Circulator data on a map of real-time traffic data from Google during a period of five hours Saturday night during the Orioles game. It served to show at what points in the Circulator system—and at what times—buses were clumping up due to more car traffic.
  • Rate Your Ride + (“Most Useful for the Commuter”): The city’s MTA bus system already employs a “Rate Your Ride” application for riders to tell the MTA how good (or poor) a job they’re doing. But + was built on top of the existing BusIt app, which means it can be used with any public transit system that uses a NextBus feed. Also, it provides a way for transit agencies to visualize data on the relative comfort, speed and safety of bus rides.

Chris Whong and team at work during Reinvent Transit.

  • (“Most Bike Friendly”): You want to ride a bike in Baltimore. You have no idea how to go about that. You need to visit this website.
  • MRLN (“Biggest Idea”): Pronounce it “Merlin,” and then never use multiple transit maps again. This project combined several Baltimore city transit maps—Light Rail, MTA buses, MARC trains, Metro subway—into one map, with line widths corresponding the frequency of transit travel.

American University students working during Reinvent Transit.

All the projects won some type of prize, donated by Zipcar, Betamore, Light Street Cycles, Bikemore bike advocacy group and others.
[View the story “Reinvent Transit pitch ideas” on Storify]

Companies: Mayor’s Office of Information Technology / Betamore

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