CyclePhilly: How Civic Hacking, a Bike, an App and a Tap Might Change Philadelphia for the Better
The first paragraph on the CyclePhilly website says:
CyclePhilly is a smartphone app for recording your bike trips. Data from the app can be used by regional transportation planners in the Philadelphia area to make Philly a better place to ride.
CyclePhilly is also a volunteer project fueled by a handful of people with no agenda but to do some good for the City of Philadelphia.
The project has its roots in a simple email to Code for Philly co-captain Chris Alfano:
Hi. I just moved to Philadelphia. I am looking to improve my coding skills. I have rudimentary css and html coding skills which I use in my current position. Many years ago, I did some C++ programming. I am wondering if Code for Philly is right for me or if my skills are too rudimentary to get involved. Please let me know your thoughts. Thank you.
Chris promptly responded with an encouraging email that no existing skills were necessary to join Code for Philly and "dedication" was all that was required. In hindsight, Chris could not have provided better advice.
Following Chris' response I attended my first Code for Philly meetup, ready to learn and ready to commit. There, I ran into former City of Philadelphia Chief Data Officer, Mark Headd, and started chatting about open data surrounding biking habits throughout the City. Mark quickly assessed that no one really had data on bike route choices and replied with a jarring, but motivating: "Why don't you get it?" At the time I thought, "huh? not so simple when you have limited coding experience," but what the heck, I thought I'd give it a shot.
While there are plenty of great fitness/cycling apps out there that record routes, they are generally too feature-rich and clunky for a project like this, I thought. Unless the app is quick and light, people would never volunteer route data. So my plan was to develop a simple GPS tracking app that loaded quickly, recorded raw route data and had a web map component so that users would be assured their trips were not going off into the ether.
At the time I did not know a thing about app development, but Mark and Chris encouraged me to pursue the idea and introduced me to some smart and dedicated transportation planners at the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission (DVRPC), namely Greg Krykewycz and Chris Pollard, who were more than enthusiastic about the potential of a smartphone app for tracking bike routes.
After speaking to Greg and Chris, I started researching what was necessary to accomplish such a task and discovered similar projects in San Francisco, Austin and Atlanta. I reached out to the people who started those projects and asked how the projects got off the ground. They were more than happy to help, pointed me to the code, and educated me on what was necessary to make the project a success.
With the source code in hand, I attended the next Code for Philly meetup knowing a little HTML and CSS but very little about the Objective-C, Java, PHP, SQL and the AJAX necessary to make it all work. Needless to say I needed some help - and that is when I met Lloyd Emelle and Kathryn Killebrew.
CyclePhilly would not exist without Lloyd and Kathryn. They immediately saw its value and were willing to take the source code I had farmed and help rebrand it for Philadelphia. Moreover, each of them are about four programmers in one and "speak" about 10 (maybe more) programming languages a piece, and they speak them well.
As co-captain of Code for Philly, Lloyd served as the technical grandmaster for this project, developing sophisticated app components and backend technologies while Kat's coding dexterity and aptitude for data wrangling provided a steady and solid stream of improvements.
Imagine, in your free time, working long hours doing highly skilled and complex work for no pay simply because you think it will help people. That is what Lloyd and Kathryn did, and I think that is pretty amazing. Lloyd and Kat's work on the apps and backend exponentially improved their functionality. Simply put, they poured their hearts into this project. I owe them a debt of gratitude for patiently guiding me through this process, teaching me what I knew nothing about before and generally steering the ship.
We also have to thank many of the hackers that went in and out of Code for Philly in the past year and helped us out, especially co-captain Chris Alfano and Kevin Clough.
The best reward, however, came from the process - identifying a problem, user needs and expectations and working with great programmers to build something from the ground up and, more importantly, learning that you need more than technological prowess to get it done. In fact, in Chris Alfano's words, what you really need is dedication and perseverance. Those two elements along with matching your work to what you value are fundamental to accomplishing anything.
We will see what the future holds for CyclePhilly and whether it will be a success among the public, but if just one bike route gets a new paint job as a result, we've accomplished what we set out to do. In the meantime, I figured out that what I value most is motivating others to do great things, and, hopefully, this will be great.
If you are wondering what you can do to help CyclePhilly, take out your phone, download the app, and do something you do every 10 minutes anyway - tap your screen, but this time, tap START in CyclePhilly and get on your bike. Not only will it be good for you but good for everyone else.