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Despite Software Problems, Civic Hackers are Pedaling Bike Share Data

BY Miranda Neubauer | Thursday, June 13 2013


Reporters are shoaling around the news that New York City's new bike sharing system, Citi Bike, is benighted with problems stemming from its high-tech software. But that's not putting the brakes on plans to explore what programmers might do with data generated by the system by hosting a Citi Bike Civic Hack Night later this month.

In the two weeks since the Citi Bike system launched, complaints have mounted about software troubles with the bikes' docking system, the New York Times and WNYC reported. WNYC, unsatisfied with the information on outages it was able to obtain from the city, scraped bike share station data and concluded that 10 percent of Citi Bike stations fail each day.

According to the New York Times and WNYC, the system operator is using software here in New York it didn't use in successful systems in Washington, D.C. and in Boston. Instead, another vendor decided to build a system in-house instead of sticking with a third vendor's software. So the Big Apple's bike sharing is powered by a system that posed problems for the much smaller Chattanooga, Tenn., where only 300 bikes are shared among 30 stations. Chicago, which planned to use the same platform, has announced it is delaying the launch of its program by two weeks for further testing. Meanwhile, reports the New York Times, system operator Alta Bicycle Share, based in Oregon, filed a suit against the Montreal-based Public Bike System Company for providing "nonconforming goods and faulty goods" to Citi Bike. WNYC adds 8D Technologies, the spurned software vendor whose wares were going to power Citi Bike, sued PBSC for $26 million. Alta told the Times that its suit was never served and that the companies' partnership continued.

A PBSC spokesperson referred our inquiries to Alta, which has not responded to a request for comment.

With news media piling on, it's tough being a bike nerd these days. Last week, Daily News reporter Oren Yaniv wrote on Twitter that "Today's Post had story on CitiBike rack that was offline for couple of hours but nothing about a subway tunnel that will be shut for a year."

City officials say it's early days yet for Citi Bike. Bugs or no, the program promises to serve up a new selection of data for coders — hence the upcoming event.

"Every new bike share system has had an adjustment period as people learn how to use it and technicians troubleshoot the thousands of moving and virtual parts, and the scale in New York is like nowhere else. The good news is that there are fewer and fewer kinks even as we’re seeing more and more riders," city Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan said in statements to WNYC and the Times.

Noel Hidalgo, NYC program manager for Code for America, said the city and Alta should be transparent about the problems, but also said that since "they are fighting a group of people who are very vocal about their opposition to bike share ... and will use every little piece of information against them, I can understand cautiousness about absolute transparency."

The June 26 Civic Hack Night, organized by Beta NYC, a New York City Code for America brigade, OpenPlans and NYU's Rudin Center, will be an opportunity for the civic hacker transportation community and developers to exchange ideas about how to use the Citi Bike data, he said.

So far, developers have been able to access JSON public data endpoints for the program showing real-time data on bike stations, availability of bikes and availability of parking slots, he said. Developers have begun taking tools developed for Boston, Washington D.C. and Montreal — where Alta systems offer similar data — and tailoring them to New York City, he said.

Hidalgo said that some of the earliest data on travel time savings shows benefits for "public transportation deserts" in the West Village and Alphabet City where there is less bus and subway infrastructure.

A representative of the Department of Transportation will be attending the event to discuss currently available and upcoming data feeds.

Anthony Townsend, senior research fellow at the Rudin Center for Transportation and Management, said he hopes developers at the event might suggest other data they would like to see. Townsend said he would be interested in users being able to get an API of their own records and use history and have other applications be able to access Citi Bike data. For example, he is interested in mashing up Citi Bike usage data with Foursquare data to create a heat map.

"People are going to start thinking about designing neighborhoods [based on that kind of data]," he said, increasing the value of certain locations. "From my personal experience the killer app is cross town trips. I was on the M42 last week and it took 20 minutes from Grand Central to Bryant Park but only seven minutes by bike," he said. "What has befuddled transportation planners for 100 years is that there is not enough cross town circulation, this $40 million bike share program appears to be the solution."

Depending on how the problems with the bike share program evolve, it could become an issue in the ongoing New York City mayoral race. A candidates' debate scheduled for this coming Monday in Queens focused on tech policy is expected to draw former Rep. Anthony Weiner, former NYC Comptroller Bill Thompson, former Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrión Jr., and former City Councilman Sal Albanese.