Day in the life of the NYC Taxi Data

29 Jul

Here is the quick story of the NYC Taxi data. It’s a good example of how messy and fun civic technology can be.


What’s next for this data set? Got something interesting to build off of it?

How to get started in Civic Hacking

9 Feb








Originally posted on Reposted using Creative Commons.

What is civic hacking?

Seventy people gathered together one sunny Oakland afternoon, to volunteer and improve their city. There were no rakes or yard tools normally seen at volunteer day events though. No paint brushes, no trash bags, no canned soup bins. These seventy people were laden with laptops and were volunteering to improve the city’s website. This group of engaged citizens were building Oakland Answers, a new easy way to get answers for the most common questions asked on the Oakland city website. From finding out how to pay parking tickets, to checking what jobs the City was hiring for, this new website was citizen focused and community built. The day long event was called a “writeathon” and the majority of folks in the room were not web developers, but long time Oakland residents who came to write answers. Technologists were there too though, setting up servers and forking the open source code for the site. These web developers, the answer writers, and the City staff were all taking part in the growing new movement of civic hacking.

Civic hacking is people working together quickly and creatively to help improve government. – Jake Levitas

Here are a few more examples of popular open source civic hacking projects:

Open Source Civic Hacking
Open source software is fundamental to civic hacking. Passionate volunteers write code and invent services that improve their own neighborhoods, but do so in a way that can be repeated in other communities around the world. Being able to easily share code without restriction is what allows for civic technology to scale. For example, a few years ago in Boston there were severe snow storms that buried the fire hydrants. The same snow was downing powerlines and sparking fires. Some civic hackers saw this problem and created Adopt-a-hydrantGithHub, a way for neighbors to volunteer to shovel out the hydrants on their block. The following Summer, the same code was forked and redeployed in Honolulu, not for snow but for tsunami sirens. Adopta has since been redeployed dozens of times and is being constantly improved by coders across the country.


Getting Started
A great first project is to include your city in an existing service. Take Click that Hood – GitHub for example. It’s a fun game that helps teach about a city’s neighborhoods. Whats great about it is that it has clear instructions for adding your own city to the game. These instructions include using open source tools, collaborating on GitHub, and finding open data — all necessary skills for getting started in civic hacking.

Finding open data
The civic hacking movement is dependent on being able to easily find data about governments and the places they govern. If transit data, like bus schedules and train station locations, aren’t available than we couldn’t make any useful apps about transit. Luckily, many cities understand the importance of making their data available and have open data portals now. has a list of many of the government data portals around the country and world.  These portals gather all the available datasets that a City has and put them all online in one place. The best data portals have that data in a machine readible format, so that it can be easily included in apps. Check your City’s website to find if a data portal exists. If not, then working with your City to get one setup is a great civic hacking project to start with.

Open Source Data portals:


It’s important to remember that civic hacking includes both community and technology. All aspiring civic hackers need to join with others to solve our civic problems together. Check out the Code for America Brigade to find a local volunteer group or start your own.  The best part of joining up with other civic hackers is finding out how they’ve achieved successes in their own cities. The Brigade is one of the best resources for discovering the latest open source tools and projects to work on. Also, working with City staff and civic leaders who are part of the Brigade is vital so that the civic technology apps created by civic hackers solve real societal problems. Many different skills and many different perspectives are needed to work on problems that effect many different people. Finally, to get really immersed in the civic hacking movement, consider applying for the  Code for America Fellowship program.

Good luck!

Lessons from Colombia

30 Dec
Sound track included. Press play on the vid to start the cumbia and check out my trip.
        1. Bogotá
        2. Ondrae
          SFO – BOG (@ San Francisco International Airport (SFO) w/ 139 others)
        3. hackyourcity
          Bogota also has a sprawling Bus Rapid transit system. The @TransMilenio has triple-articulated busses, dedicated lanes, and is crazy packed.
        4. Bike lanes on all the sidewalks. You have to ride reaaaal slow though. Most accidents are from people walking in front of bikes. Not sure if I like it.
        5. La Ciclovia! I wrote about this back when. Got to check it off the bucket list.
        6. hackyourcity
          Every Sunday, for fourty years, Bogota shuts down most of major roads for families to bike, skate, dance, and run. Its the @ciclorecreovia
        7. hackyourcity
          Bogota’s Ciclovia was hugely influential in the United States in recent years as dozens of cities started their own.…
        8. Separated bike lanes in the middle of dedicated bus rapid transit lanes in between a boulevard that’s closed to traffic for the day so families can run and bike together. What’s your city doing?
Tons of families biking, skating, and running.

Tons of families and every block where employees of the Ciclovia directing traffic.

Free Zumba in Parque de Simon Bolivar.

Free Zumba in Parque de Simon Bolivar.

Historic architecture sprinkled all over.

Historic architecture sprinkled all over.

And around every corner were really chill neighborhood parks.

And around every corner were really chill neighborhood parks.

They started making parts of the Ciclovia routes permanent.

They started making parts of the Ciclovia routes permanent.

Got to meet Bogota's most up street artist. He was hired to paint all the dividers on the Ciclovia.He gave me a stash of stickers and posters. Cool guy.

Got to meet Bogota’s most up street artist. DJ LU. He was hired to paint all the dividers on the Ciclovia.
He gave me a stash of stickers and posters. Cool guy.

        1. Medellín
        2. hackyourcity
          The second biggest city, Medellin is warm, gorgeous, and full of beautiful folks. It was super dangerous back when, but fun and safe now.
Big Medellin

Big Medellin

Bandeja paisas is a common dish from Medellin, Colombia. The food from that part of the country is what's known around the world as Colombian food.  We got rice, red beans, an egg, platanos, a small arepa, aguacate, hella chicarones, chorizo, and some other meat too.

Bandeja paisas is a common dish from Medellin, Colombia. The food from that part of the country is what’s known around the world as Colombian food.
We got rice, red beans, an egg, platanos, a small arepa, aguacate, hella chicarones, chorizo, and some other meat too.

    1. hackyourcity
      The @MetroMedellin runs fast, clean, and dependable. Packed full of jerseys right after a football game gets out.
    2. Cable Car over Medellín. It’s part of the public transportation, transfer off the trai @ Metro Cable Linea K
    3. hackyourcity
      Visited the @Rise_group at EAFIT University. Nice campus. Showed them the new new in map making. They taught me cutting edge spatial maths.
    4. hackyourcity
      Had beers with EAFIT people, went to look at the famous Medellin Christmas lights at the river.
    5. So, uh, 18 million Christmas lights were just turned on tonight in Medellín.
    6. Medellín lights up with a different theme every year. This time is Los Arboles. @ Medellín
    7. They turned the light on a week early because Madonna is playing tonight at the football stadium.
    8. Went to a raw graffiti, bboy battle up in the hillside neighborhoods.
    9. Bboy battle at a street hip-hop fest in Medellín, Colombia. @ Bulevar de Castilla (La 68)
    10. The winning piece from the Spray a la Mano battle up in Castilla. #bigupfest @ Bulevar de Castilla (La 68)
    11. Tons of families crowded the street for the battle. Some local famous writers were judging the rookies.
Barefoot Park. You start by taking your shoes off then meander through the bamboo forest.

Barefoot Park. You start by taking your shoes off then meander through the bamboo forest.

Then, eyes closed, you feel your way through the maze.

Then, eyes closed, you feel your way through the maze.

After massaging your feet in the sand, you can wash them off in these sitting pools.

After massaging your feet in the sand, you can wash them off in these sitting pools.

A really tall afro-caribbean guy stepped out of the little door moments later.

A really tall afro-caribbean guy stepped out of the little door moments later.

Sunset on the old colonial wall.

Sunset on the old colonial wall.

Finished my trip in the paradise of Parque Tayrona.

Finished my trip in the paradise of Parque Tayrona.

Code For America

17 Oct

I got the Fellowship! I’m spending 2013 hacking on cities with Code For America. Yeah yeah yeah!

Code For America is a new organization that helps upgrade cities. It has quickly become the most distinguished force in the emerging open government, smart city movement. It’s like ‘PeaceCorps for geeks’ which I’m way down with.

They’ll send me out to one of the 2013 partner cities where I’ll get to flip the local government onto state of the art tech. My first job will be to meet tons of government employees and community leaders and just listen. After hearing what the local problems are and figuring out the local political quilt, I’ll come back to San Francisco for the rest of the year and hack. I’ll have the opportunity to hack on solving the specific problems my partner city faces, and solve them in a way that is scalable to any city in the world.

If the quality of projects from the past years Fellows are any example, its going to be an immensely exciting, yet challenging year. Bring it.

2013, the official year of Hack Your City.

Here is the Code For America founder and executive director, Jennifer Pahlka preaching church at TED.

Smart Bus Stops Done Dirt Cheap

8 Oct

Check out the latest Hack Your City project! Smart Bus Stops Done Dirt Cheap!

San Francisco’s Bus stops are already kinda smart, they have those cool Next Bus arrival signs, and some detailed maps of bus routes. Those help answer a few questions people have when they are stuck at the stop. Smart Stops is a project to help bus stops answer all kinds of local questions though. Think of it like Siri for the block.

You’ll be able to ask your favorite neighborhood smart bus stop all kinds of things. Just text in a question and your bus stop will send you a answer. How do I take the bus to Golden Gate Park? You’ll get SMS directions you can carry with you on your trip. Who’s got the best burritos in this hood? Where’s the local health clinic? We’ll ask around and find out for you. Smart stops will also collect stories from the neighborhood to share if you ask nicely.

This project came about because of the always awesome GAFFTA and their upcoming Urban Prototyping Festival. Hack Your City was invited to submit a project. We are honored to have Smart Stops included in the selection of urban interventions for the festival. All of the projects chosen have a mix of open source technology, public art, and had to be easily built by others in any city.

We chose to make Smart Stops a text message app so that it would be more accessible to people who are riding the bus. I’m not really feeling making a smart phone app, it just doesn’t seem as important. The spirit of this festival is create open source art that any one can clone and easily reproduce in their own city. By creating a SMS service, our Smart Stops art project can easily be built in any city in the world. There are parts of the globe where text messaging is used way more than the internet. Smart Stops is ready for these places already, no digital divide, no expensive hardware, just any easy code base to upgrade your bus stops.

We’ve got a talented crew of Hack Your City hooligans making this happen. We got people coding the backend, the questions, and the SMS service. You can check our work in progress code at

We’ve also got urban hackers hand building our signs from reclaimed materials. We’re hand painting them with classic hand styles. The’re gonna be fly.

DIY Libraries

9 Aug


DIY Libraries

Awesome! Urban Hacker John Locke from NYC has been fabricating and installing DIY Payphone Lending Libraries around Morningside Heights. I’m really feeling them because they turn this unused, deprecated, relic of the city into something equally antiquated, yet fresh. The little libraries are getting a lot of love lately from the press, yet this interview in World Literature Today is the coolest review.

I’m excited about this project because it’s part of something bigger that John and his crew are trying to do, The Department of Urban Betterment, which is like Hack Your City NYC. What up DUB, lets link!

DIY Libraries are important because they install a little shelf of pride in a neighborhood, by showing that neighbors are chill enough to ‘give one, take one’. They are also easy enough to build that you can replicate them anywhere in the world and since people have been building bookshelves since forever, they’ve gotten crazy stylish too. Building a DIY library in your neighborhood, inspired by the local architecture can produce infinite, unique designs that can be thrown up in a day.


Poetic Civility.

A crew of Urban Hackers in in Puerto Alegre, Brazil have been putting in DIY Libraries at a few of their Bus Stops. They started as one DIY project that got lots of respect, so the city and some nonprofits sponsored them to be built in other neighborhoods. A great trend that a lot of these DIY Urban Design projects have had lately is posting easy to follow instructions so that other like minded neighbors around the world can replicate these good ideas.

In the video below, this crew in Brazil has stepped up the design of the DIY libraries by encouraging local artists to help build and decorate the shelfs.


Colombia, always on point, has a bunch of small libraries in there public parks. The local gov took an easy, cheap idea and ran with it. They have over a hundred of them throughout the country.

More DIY Libraries

World Literature Today 10 micro libraries.

Embark NYC wins best Transit App

9 Feb

The App Quest
The New York MTA hosted an App Quest contest to see what the tech community could build on top of recently opened transit data. This contest arose from the newly revealed experience that hackers and designers can create apps that are more attractive and accessible, for far cheaper and much quicker than transit agencies themselves can.

Embark NYC

iBART Custom Map
The winner of the the App Quest contest was Embark NYC. Embark is an app that routes you all over NYC and looks great. I’ve been using their iBart app for San Francisco for a couple years now. I’ve always admired their custom map of the BART system.

My work, Urban Mapping, also entered an app into the App Quest contest. We developed and submitted TravelShed, a visual way to see how far you can travel on transit in a given amount of time. I didn’t personally work on it at all, yet I think its a great iteration of the isochrone map.

A runner up of mention is NotifyME. Its an Android app that will send you updates if the trains you usually take are delayed. I’m mentioning this one because I just built the same sort of service as a text message app, here in SF. Check it out at Late BART.

The Summer of Smart

6 Jul

Flick from

The era of urban hacking has arrived. The city of San Francisco is throwing a ‘Summer of Smart’ effort to get urban and civic hackers of all stripes to start working together. Local arts orgs and the relevant City departments have partnered to create space and time for designers, developers, journalists, and activists to make apps and tech solutions to important urban problems. These ‘Civic Hackers’ will link over the summer for a few super intense creative sessions called hackathons.

There are going to be three weekend long hackathons. These are events where interested people meet up to code  and draw like mad for 48 hours straight. At the end of the weekend they compare their achievements and party. The first of these three weekends just happened and it was rad sounding. The Gray Area Gallery gathered SF’s finest civic hackers to work on the themes of Community Development and Public Art. Unfortunately I was only able to stay for the keynotes and the introductions, but the list of projects made is super impressive.

The started projects include Art Mapper,  a slick twitter based app that maps out all the pics of Street Art sent to it. Also surprising it hadn’t been made yet is Public Art Spaces.  Additionally, there were location constrained digital bulletin boards, and even a tool to help make paying taxes fun. Keep on eye on There were many more ideas passed around during the introduction that didn’t get teams. My favorite idea presented was a kickstarterish way to crowdsource funds for urban renewal. Such as community funded gardens, bike paths, and the like. Holler at me if you want to work on that one sometime.

There are two more hackathons happening this Summer. Sustainability and Transportation at the end of July and Public Health and Food in August. These events aren’t just for computer programmers, come through if you have any ideas or desires to be a part of the new civic hacker movement.

Gavin Newsom came through the first hackathon, here he is talking about the importance of Open Gov, Open Data and Civic Hacking. 

GOOD Mag on DIY Urban Design

20 Apr

GOOD Magazine posted a great photo essay on DIY Urban Design. My favorite is the SignChair in the picture above.

Portland’s Singing Bike Bridge

16 Feb

This post has a soundtrack. Press play and read the rest.

There is a new bridge being built in Portland for light rail and bikes to get over the Willamette River. They were having problems though, trying to slow down bikers who would come flying down the steep landing of the bridge into heavy pedestrian traffic. In addition to signs and paint, they are going to cut grooves into the path, spaced just so, to play a song when bike tires roll over them. The chosen track is SImon and Garfunkel’s “The 59th Street Bridge (Feelin Groovy)“.

They got the idea from this Honda commercial. It’s an ill idea, even if I wouldn’t want to live next to that road.

I heard about it from @portlandafoot.

P.S. I’d have chosen Ye’s “Drive Slow.”