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Technology & Entrepreneurship

VIA Turns To Tech Community For Challenges

Joey Palacios/Texas Public Radio

In Cattleman's Square, across from VIA Metropolitan Transit headquarters, buses flow in and out by the minute. A constant chirp let's passengers know a VIA bus is lowering it's ramp for a person in a wheelchair.  

VIA buses carried passengers 163 million miles in 2015 according to U.S. Department of Transportation numbers, but for the physically challenged, the final leg between the bus stop and their final destination is often the most difficult.

VIA VP of Information Technology Steve Young says in San Antonio and across the country those areas can be inaccessible.

"Maybe a tree root has grown up through the sidewalk and it's lumpy and the wheelchair can't get over it. Or there is a telephone pole implanted in one and there's some construction. The scenarios are endless," he explains. 

Credit Paul Flahive
Steve Young (right) demonstrates VIA's forthcoming mobile app to Geekdom's Lorenzo Gomez.

For VIA and its customers this is just one real-world challenge that 80 computer coders will try and tackle this weekend at VIA's first Code-a-thon. Maybe using VIA's own transportation data and finding ways to crowdsource sidewalk and pedestrian obstacles through gamification, coders could solve this pernicious public policy problem. 

Code-a-thons leverage the technology savvy and computer code literate to find solutions to real world problems. They have cropped up across the country as civic hack-a-thons to get people engaged in public problems that may have a tech solution. Local governments have embraced these strategies from Anchorage to Atlanta. The Edwards Aquifer Authority held a code-a-thon with its vast stores of water data earlier this month.

Other Potential Challenges:

  • Design an app or mobile website that allows users to identify restaurants or other businesses that are a quick bus ride away.
  • Through data analysis or gamification increase VIA ridership
  • Help VIA create a low-cost, no-cost way to notify riders of next bus arrivals.

The VIA code-a-thon won't dictate which challenge teams have to take on. Teams of up to five will have a variety of skill sets, and Steve Young says they didn't want to hem anyone in. They will be judged on a variety of factors from technical achievement to impact. Winning teams will split up to $4500 in prizes.  The code they end up building will belong to VIA.
VIA recently launched a new, mobile friendly website, is developing a mobile app, and has been open-sourcing its data for awhile now. 

"This is what is so exciting to me," says Geekdom CEO Lorenzo Gomez. He thins this code-a-thon is a good way to get the word out about the great stuff VIA is already doing. I think that they will move from thinking 'Oh, VIA is just the bus system' to thinking 'Oh my goodness. They've got 30 people on their IT team. They are open-sourcing their data.' It will kick off a lot of really good activity and conversations."

The 24-hour challenge begins at noon on Saturday and lasts until noon Sunday. It is hosted at Geekdom and Codeup.