Hack Tyler has a posse

It has been almost a year since I made a big fuss about moving to Tyler and started on this crazy project of contorting the place to me and myself to it. This project has been fantastically successful. Sure, I’ve lost a few battles, but I’ve also genuinely come to enjoy living here. This is in large part due to the community of engaged and thoughtful people who’ve sought me out since I arrived. It has been a deeply rewarding experience to connect with so many other folks who are passionate about making Tyler a more inclusive and sustainable community.

In short, good friends make all the difference.

With that in mind, I’m happy to announce that Hack Tyler is no longer just me. An incredible group of local hackers and muckrackers (née engaged citizens) have banded together to think bigger and hack smarter. My friends here in Tyler wanted to pitch in and they have—to great effect.

Today I’m thrilled to announce two new Hack Tyler projects:

Tyler Public Art »

TPA is a visual index of all public art on display in Tyler. It has a map. It has photos. It works on tablets and phones. You can take it with you and tour the city. We included graffiti because we’re contrary like that.

This project benefited tremendously from the contributions of designer Justin Edwards and programmer Joseph McCullough.

Know of art we haven’t found yet? Let us know!

(Want it for your city? It’s all client-side and open source.)

Make Tyler Weird »

MTW is a user-created directory of everything that makes Tyler unique. Inspired by the Keep Portland Weird and Keep Austin Weird movements we aim to raise awareness of local businesses and culture and also to make it possible for those with niche interests (like programming) to find other locals with similar interests. It is based on the LocalWiki platform, which has been used to great effect in Davis, CA and, more recently, nearby Denton, TX.

MTW also provides a platform for us to centralize our efforts around the weird local issues we care about that don’t get enough attention, such as recycling, poverty and safe, alternative transportation.

Many members of Hack Tyler have pitched in to start filling it with information, but I’d like to make special mention of Justin Edwards, who came up with the idea, and contributors Justin Reese and Jacob Lindsey who have added excellent content.

Anyone can contribute to Make Tyler Weird!

Get involved!

If you are citizen of Tyler who cares about the issues I write about on this blog (or others that I don’t write about, but you think I should), please join us! Although this group is very strongly focused on technology we want to hear from a variety of perspectives and are especially interested in engaging with local charities and non-profits. I would also like to make a special plea to any women or representatives of Tyler’s minority communities to join in the conversation. This is a community where you can feel safe and your opinions will be respected.

Our mailing list is here. Please, lend us your expertise.

The mission of Hack Tyler has changed somewhat. I’m less concerned with government these days and more concerned with issues and culture, but I am no less excited. If anything I’m even more determined than I was one year ago.

Keep your hats on Tyler, we have only begun to hack.

Are you a student in Tyler? I’ll be speaking to the UT Tyler chapter of the ACM on Friday, April 27th at noon. Location TBA.

The wealth of property

Note: This post was revised at 10:30 AM to remove vacant lots from the data and map. All calculations have been adjusted. (Thanks, Justin!)

Property tax records are a frequently overlooked resource for regional demographic data. In particular, they can provide a window into distribution of wealth, something census data does a poor job of illustrating. In Tyler, as in most places, property tax data is publicly accessible. Unfortunately, it’s not easily available in bulk. I’ve long put off writing a script to extract the data from the Smith County Appraisal District (SCAD) website, despite knowing it would be a rich source of information. So I was particularly pleased when a friend of a friend at Tyler-based TaxNetUSA offered me the complete Smith County property tax rolls, already cleaned and ready to be analyzed. Thanks to this new, rich data source I can make things like this:

Tyler home values, 2011

I find this map fascinating for any number of reasons, but first a few caveats about how it was created. It might seem that this would be as simple as selecting properties labeled residential and putting them on a map. In fact, there is no single way of identifying a property as being residential. In order to estimate what constitutes a “home” I used the following process:

  • Connect each property tax record to the tax parcel documenting its shape (the parcel shapes are what is actually mapped).
  • Connect each tax parcel to the zoning area it is in.
  • Filter out all tax parcels not in a residential zone.
  • Filter out all parcels with zero “improvement value” to remove vacant lots.

Unfortunately, for reasons that are unclear, this doesn’t come even close to filtering out all businesses, churches, state lands, etc. (Ostensibly the zoning in Tyler is a total mess.) To accomplish this I had to go over the data and generate a long list of rules about what not to include, based on the name of the “owner”. So, for instance, I got rid of anything that ended in “LLC”, “PENTECOSTAL” or “FOUNDATION”. After a few hours of this, I had a set of properties that I believe more or less correspond to individually and jointly owned homes. It should not be believed to be perfect, but any errors should be evenly distributed throughout the dataset.

My first intuition was to shade this map by value increments of $100,000. This had the intriguing property of very clearly illustrating the “one percent” of Occupy Wall Street fame. They have homes valued at more than $500,000 and mostly live around Hollytree Country Club. However, this approach also lumped more than half of all properties (52.5%) into the “less than $100,000” group. When I observed that the median value was only $95,572 it became clear that this approach was obscuring a lot of what was interesting about the underlying data.

Instead of equal intervals, I’ve used quantiles to the represent the data, that is, five groups where each group accounts for 20% of the properties. Thus each color corresponds to approximately 4,723 of the 23,616 mapped properties. This has the much more valuable effect of illustrating where there is poverty (the 20% of homes worth less than $45,841) and prosperity (homes worth more than $173,640).

Even more interestingly, this approach seems to adequately distinguish the lower-middle, middle, and upper-middle classes relative to Tyler norms, though one should bear in mind that apartments are not illustrated at all. As low-income groups tend to cluster in multi-family units one should imagine that population being significantly larger than the map illustrates. Despite these limitations, I feel that this approach adequately demonstrates the reality of the economic divisions in the city. (I’m pleased to note that my neighborhood, Charnwood, is, as in all things, a melting pot.)

I didn’t create this map to invoke the specter of class warfare, though frankly I don’t think we can be reminded too frequently that many Americans can’t afford to eat properly. I did create it in order to demonstrate how geographically and racially aggravated these class divisions are. Tyler north of Front Street is poor and Hispanic. (See the race map, I made last year.) South of Front Street is wealthy and white. The predominantly African American communities in west and northwest Tyler are marginally better off than the Hispanic areas. However, North Tyler is also growing much more rapidly, thanks to a 55% expansion in Tyler’s Hispanic population over the last ten years. These demographic forces are going to have an unprecedented impact on the city during the next decade.

Hopefully this map will encourage individuals to carefully consider Tyler’s class stratification, especially as it impacts efforts to support minority communities, revitalize downtown and prevent economic stagnation. I’ve only just scratched the surface of this property tax data and I expect to do several more blog posts using it. In the meantime, here are a few more facts about the data presented on this map.

  • Total value of all properties on the map: $2,942,661,243.
  • City property taxes collected on this amount: $6,147,219.
  • Total land area: 63438 square acres.
  • Median year of home construction: 1960.

Thanks for reading.

What I will not be doing next

In January I had an opportunity to turn Hack Tyler into something more than it is today. It was a chance to elevate the effort to a higher profile, pursue larger projects and even gain some modest financial support. I planned extensively for this chance, wrote a careful announcement letter to the city council and solicited advice from many friends and colleagues.

I have decided not to pursue this opportunity.

Though my decisions are beholden to no one (more on this in a moment), I feel I should justify this choice, in part because I believe if I had pursued this opportunity the scope and impact of Hack Tyler projects could have expanded tremendously. In short, I’m walking away from the chance to do more good.

Hack Tyler, is andI intendalways will be, a rabbit hole for me. It is an opportunity to experiment and scratch my own itches. When I built Tyler Transit I knew it could be useful to many people, but that was not why I did it. I did it because I wanted it. I was my own user.

Were I to formalize Hack Tyler it would cease to become an outlet for my creative whims and intuitions. I would be making things because they are needed and not because I am passionate about them. This is a often a minor distinction, but the cumulative result is that the effort would begin to seem more and more like work until eventually I lost motivation.

I know this, because it’s already happened. I’ve forced myself to work on things, not because I was excited about them, but rather because I believe they are what Tyler needs most. This has dulled my interest in them and ultimately caused me to put them aside. This is entirely my own fault. In my enthusiasm for a good idea I began to view myself as a revolutionary instead of a tinkerer. I was wrong and the result is that I ceased to be personally invested in the projects. This isn’t good for me and it would almost certainly be fatal to any organized entity I might endeavor to form around the project.

I want to create great things for Tyler and I hope others are equally eager about the possibilities. However, I won’t turn Hack Tyler into something that I must manage. If I am to be excited about it, it must be for my own reasons—the real ones, not the ones I made up.

I can’t tell you how frequently I will be updating the site in the future, but I can guarantee that when I do it will be because I’m excited to share something I’m passionate about, not just something I believe is objectively important.

As an example, today I’d like to share with you a new, albeit minor, project:

2010 Census: Age diversity in Smith County

This is a map I made of Smith County age demographics using census data. It is also an experiment in designing a dot-density map to be color-blind friendly.

In addition, this map was a response to interest from Glory Development Corporation, a Tyler non-profit dedicated to building and rehabilitating affordable housing. This map was built to help them identify areas where there are concentrations of elderly residents. (I also made a separate, less busy version more specific to their needs.) They have big dreams and good ideas and I’m helping them because their passions overlap with mine. That, I believe, is where I am at my best and it is where I shall engage my efforts from this point on.

Tyler Sirens: a visual police scanner

Launch Tyler Sirens »

Tyler Sirens presents nearly-up-to-the-minute incident report data from Tyler Police Department. However, if it were just that it wouldn’t be much different from the Tyler Morning Telegraph’s Police Call Map. What Tyler Sirens adds is real-time updates. If you leave your window open and a report comes in (or is updated), the map will instantly update and display the newest information. It’s less like looking at a map of what’s happened and more like listening to a police scanner. (For the geeks out there, this is built on Pusher. Oh, and there is an API. And, of course, it’s open source.)

This project came about because of my fascination with a singular set of data made available by the Tyler Police Department:

The Active Call List

This dataset is updated every two minutes and lists, with important exceptions, all the incident reports that come in to the police. Censored from the list are certain sensitive crimes, such as Sexual Assault and Suicide. Violent crimes are delayed up to fifteen minutes so police can secure the scene. There is a FAQ that describes all the limitations of the data.

While its important to keep what is left out in mind, it’s also worth recognizing just how rare a dataset like this is. In many places—including my favorite metropolis, Chicago—the idea of getting real-time data from the police is almost unthinkable. (Though I have discovered that a few other cities, including Memphis and Colorado Springs, have similar systems.) So how did this forward-thinking open data innovation come about in east Texas?

It turns out the ACL was a capstone project of four students at the University of Texas at Tyler Computer Science department.  They worked with the police department’s IT staff to implement the system. I think it goes without saying that this is a pretty remarkable collaboration between the university and the local government. And though the final product has certain… shall we say, idiosyncrasies (the RSS is completely invalid) it’s an impressive accomplishment and a fascinating source of useful public information.

There is much more to be done with this data. In fact, Tyler Sirens is more of a demo than a useful application. This information, with more work and, perhaps, some improvements from the Tyler Police Department, could power real-time traffic alerts, emergency notifications or give citizens an unprecedented window into what is happening in their neighborhoods. (While testing I spotted what appeared to be a rash of automobile burglaries around Tyler Junior College.) These initial reports could even be correlated with the Police Public Information Reports for accountability and responsiveness analysis. It’s a tantalizing example of open data without pretension. I love to think about what could be built if we knew what the all of our government was doing every two minutes.

My feet on Tyler’s sidewalks (map!)

I am in Tyler. While waiting I passed five months, wrote eight blog posts, and hacked four apps. Now I’m in a new place with new responsibilities and expectations, but most importantly, I’m back with the kid in this picture:

Sometime soon I will reflect on my impressions of Tyler, but first I want to celebrate the change by writing about something that was central to my original Hack Tyler post:

Public transportation. I’ll have access to a car, but I’m going to do my best to live without being a consumer of gasoline, just as I did in Chicago.

Several people insisted I couldn’t live without a car in Tylerand they were absolutely right. When I landed at Tyler Pounds Regional Airport I hadn’t driven a car in four months. Since I landed, I’ve driven nearly every day. (Mostly ferrying my son to school and various activities.)

However, I’ve also done something else since I arrived here: I’ve walked.

I very carefully selected the house I’m rentingan eccentric, hundred-year-old single-story in the Charnwood neighborhood—so that I can get to as many things as possible without driving. It’s within a mile of:

Putting so much thought into where I would live has made me acutely aware of Tyler’s pedestrian infrastructure. I’ll (hopefully) forestall any accusations of carpetbagging by noting that I also spent the summer reading all 490 pages of the Tyler 21 Comprehensive Municipal Plan as well as the additional 52 pages of the 2010 Pedestrian Access Study (PDF).

The single most surprising thing I learned from all this reading is that, at least on paper, the City of Tyler cares about me. The Tyler 21 plan is overflowing with references to creating a more livable and pedestrian friendly city. Specifically, it sets out intentions to create:

  • a network of parks and greenways (p. 6)
  • pedestrian walkways connecting business and leisure centers (p. 7)
  • a citywide system of bike trails. (p. 234)
  • conditions attractive to the “creative class”, by which it seems to mean information workers (p. 86)

In a truly bizarre twist of my expectations, Tyler seems to want me here.

A hypothetical downtown Tyler with greatly expanded greenspace.

I can only take all of this to mean one thing: somewhere in this city is a large contingent of people who either want to live a more urban lifestyle or imagine that encouraging others to do so is the only way to save their city from stagnation. This is a line of thought I am only too pleased to encourage.

Citizens of Tyler: your pedestrian infrastructure is terrible. Nevertheless, it’s possible to select a residence that allows you to walk to things you care about. In order to save others some of the time I spent researching where to live, I present my latest map:

Sidewalks of Tyler, Texas

Sidewalks of Tyler, Texas

This map was created from the same GIS data used in the Pedestrian Access Study. It shows the locations of every park, bus stop, school, bike trail, and sidewalk in the city. Type an address into the legend and you can see exactly what infrastructure is nearby.

(Special thanks to my new friends at Tyler GIS who provided me with a bunch of data that wasn’t previously available online.)

Now that I’ve been out and walked the streets of Tyler, I have to say I think the plans laid out in Tyler 21 are impressively on-target. Tyler needs to build a lot more sidewalks. However, I also foresee a few challenges that just building more sidewalks won’t solve:

  • Tyler’s downtown is a food desert. It is impossible to live within walking distance of a grocery store. Getting a green market as a downtown anchor should be a very high priority.
  • The lack of pedestrian signals makes travel on foot unsafe. Front and Broadway have some of the longest continuous sidewalks in the city, but crossing either one on foot is nearly impossible. (The tunnel under Broadway at Hogg Middle School is a notable exception.)
  • Too many bus stops lack shelters. Nobody wants to stand on the corner and look lost. If there isn’t a shelter, there effectively isn’t a bus stop.

My ability to live without a car will be extremely limited in Tyler and there is still a strong possibility I’ll end up buying one (for the moment I have a car whenever I have my son). Still, I’m heartened to see some indications that urbanism is taking hold in Tyler and I hope I can help encourage it. In the meantime, you’ll be able to identify me as the guy trying not to get hit by a Dodge Ram crossing Broadway.

Endnote: I’m here! If you’re a local who is interested in Hack Tyler or just wants to shoot the breeze, please get in touch. I’m eager to meet folks.

Hacking local business: observations on Smith County’s economy

I try to avoid thinking about economics.  It’s not a subject of contemplation that I enjoy. Nevertheless, my choices are driven in part by economics. The stress of personal economics contributed to my wife and I separating. It influenced her decision to move to Tyler and my capacity to follow. Economics, in this case a lease, is what kept me from moving earlier in the summer. And, of course, the United States is in a tremendous economic recession, which colors everything.

Amidst the the chaos, I’m changing jobs.

Given all of this, it seemed important that I learn something about the economics of my new home. One thing I do know about Texas is that it has weathered the recession remarkably well. Observers disagree about why this is, but for whatever reason the unemployment rate in Texas has consistently lagged 1-2% behind the US average. The regional economy of Smith County reflects this statewide trend:

Note: The Texas and United States unemployment rates have been seasonally adjusted. Seasonally adjusted data is not available for Smith County. Click the image for raw data and an interactive version of the graph.

To aid my exploration of the local economy I dove into the 2010 annual summary of the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and built myself an economic atlas of sorts:

Launch Smith County economic atlas

All sorts of useful information can be gleaned from this data—from banal to the highly curious. Here are a few highlights:

  • Last year in Smith County, 91,323 employees working at 5,383 places of business were paid 3.6 billion dollars.
  • The medical industry bears out its reputation as the cornerstone of the local economy—Trinity Mother Frances and East Texas Medical Center are the city’s two largest employers. All told, Health care and social assistance accounted for 26.23% of all payroll in 2010, not including government services.
  • Tyler is also known for hosting several major manufacturing companies, including Carrier and Trane. This is reflected in the 7.08% of all workers employed by the manufacturing sector. However, recent reports of layoffs at Trane seem to indicate that at least one regional employer is feeling the effects of stressed incomes in the broader US.
  • Car culture is in full evidence: Motor vehicle and parts dealers encompass 2.08% of all business establishments (the most of any Retail trade subsector). Gas stations represent another 1.62% and Auto repair businesses another 1.75%.
  • Smith County has virtually no significant natural resources: only 2.65% of all employees work in “Mining, quarrying, and oil and gas extraction" and "Agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting" sectors combined.

Although my employment is secure for the moment, one hypothetical question that arose while I was researching this data is: If I had to find a job in Tyler, could I?

The numbers tell unfortunate truths: in private industry only 160 individuals are employed in the Computer systems design and related services industry group. Another 38 are employed by Software publishers. And last, but certainly not least, Tyler has 13 employees laboring tirelessly in an upstart industry called “Newspaper publishers”.  Notably this last category falls under the subhead, “Publishing industries, except Internet.” Literally no one is recorded as being employed in the sibling enterprise, “Internet publishing and broadcasting.”

A silver-lining on this must be noted though: whether by local anomaly or statistical error, those 13 “Newspaper publishers” are working in the 7th best paying industry in Smith County. According to the data, their average salary in 2010 was $109,778.

2010 Census: Racial diversity in Smith County (map!)

Note: It has been nearly six weeks since I last wrote on Hack Tyler. I expected some of this for the reasons outlined in my last post, however, the delay was extended by a two week period during which I thought I might not be moving to Tyler after all. This has turned out not to be the case. The exact dates are still undetermined, but I will be moving in the Fall.

Since starting Hack Tyler I’ve wanted to collaborate with locals who know the place better than I. For this post I invited Mike Rogers, a native of Tyler and recent graduate of the University of Richmond, to publish in tandem with me. Read his thoughtful reflections on race in Tyler at his blog, Highways and Hallowed Halls.

In the last decade the population of Tyler grew 15.8% to 96,900, not quite keeping pace with the growth of Texas or Smith County, both of which topped 20%. Over the same time period Tyler’s Hispanic population grew 55% to 20,511—the city’s most significant demographic shift of the decade. These and numerous other insights can be gleaned from the Summary File 1 (SF1) census release, which was made available for Texas on Thursday.

The SF1 is what is most commonly thought of as the “big” census release. It contains very granular population counts summarized by race, family status, age, sex, housing status and a variety other subjects. This is the data that is commonly used by newspapers, city planners, and demographers to make informative maps, plan services, and project population trends, respectively. I’ve spent much of the last six months analyzing census data for my work at the Chicago Tribune, which last week culminated in the release of detailed maps of same-sex relationships and children less than five years old for the Chicagoland area.

Over the last few evenings I’ve taken advantage of my access to the embargoed census data to use these same techniques to prepare race map for Tyler and wider Smith County. Many thanks to my fellow news applications hackers for allowing me to recycle our source code for generating map tiles and presenting them online. Click the screenshot to view the map. (Then come back and keep reading!)

2010 Census: Racial diversity in Smith County

2010 Census: Racial diversity in Smith County

Tyler, like most American cities, is visibly segregated along racial lines. Blacks and Hispanics occupy the areas north and west of downtown, though those two groups are themselves more integrated than I would have expected. (Chicago’s extreme segregation has hyper-sensitized me to trends such as these.) The eastern and southern parts of Tyler are predominantly white, though some areas are more racially integrated.

A few things to look for on the map:

  • Dense clusters of mixed race frequently indicate group quarters, such as the Smith County jail, or student housing on the UT Tyler campus. Others mark apartment buildings and developments of townhouses.
  • The racial trends continue beyond the city, with most Hispanics living to the north of the city and most whites living to the south.
  • Whites are both more spread out and more populous in the rural areas of Smith County, accounting for over 62% of the county’s total population (Tyler included).
  • White residents particularly cluster in the lakefront communities around Lake Tyler and Saline Bay.

Though its less visible in the map it’s also worth noting that the Asian population in Tyler spiked by over 125% to 1,807.  Though this represents only 1.9% of Tyler’s 2010 population it outpaces an already dramatic 71% surge in the total Asian population of Texas.

Want more census data? Be sure to check out the Texas Tribune’s excellent statewide coverage. If you want even more detail, a good place to start is census.ire.org, a public project of Investigative Reporters and Editors created to make working with census data easier. Follow this link to jump straight to Tyler and a subset of tables that informed the map and this post.

If there is a particular aspect of Tyler’s demography you’re interested in, please leave a comment. There are many more maps to be made.

Research and [Barriers to] Development

I’m somewhat reticent to admit that the pace of Hack Tyler development has slowed and will likely remain that way for a month or two. I spent the last week packing and cleaning. My wife and son have moved and transported the majority of my belongings with them. My things are now waiting for me in a storage unit in Tyler. As a consequence, I have only my netbook to hack on and no desk space to do even that.

I’m relatively used to limited accommodations, so I’m not particularly uncomfortable. However, it does take the edge off my capacity and encourages me to reach for other activities I haven’t found enough time for over the last year. I’ve also contracted some additional work to keep myself busy in the interim. In order not to completely lose momentum on this project, I’ve shifted my focus to research and communication tasks.

I’ve been in touch with Tyler Transit regarding Tyler on Time and learned a great deal of interesting things about their systems. Most notably, the current transit system is in the process of being completely overhauled and the existing bus routes will cease to exist sometime in August. The Transportation Operations Coordinator for the department has offered to provide me with updated shapefiles and timetable data in advance of the switchover, which will allow me to preemptively refactor Tyler On Time for the new routes. This opens up the possibility of Tyler on Time “launching” with the new routes, which seems eminently useful.

Unfortunately, this new data will not include timetable for all stops, but will continue to be “waypointed” as the current data is. This makes it very difficult to offer accurate intermediate stop times. I’ve yet to decide how to handle this, but I’m leaning toward to presentation solution rather than an algorithmic solution. Something like:

The nearest stop with scheduled departure times is 4 stops away, the next bus is scheduled to arrive at that stop in 5 minutes. The previous bus departed that stop 14 minutes ago.

Predicting stop times is likely not possible as Tyler is reputed to have significant traffic congestion problems, which would render estimates based on speed and distance inaccurate. I’m open to suggestions about how else I might handle this.

Learning about the details of Tyler’s changing transit system has also led me to a number of interesting documents related to Tyler’s municipal planning:

These documents present more information that I can possibly digest during the time I have left in Chicago, but I expect studying them to provide me with essential context for my own ideas. Additionally, the “Summary File 1” batch of census data for Texas will be released sometime in the next two months, providing further insight into the place and its people. I’ll be especially excited to write about this data, given how much time I’ve spent working with census data lately.

All in all, I expect I will write much less code this month than I did in June, but I will continue to inform myself and prepare for the things that come next. Best of all, I’ve now got my son’s comprehensive nightly reports:

It’s hot. We’re going to the pool again.

Delivering the beta

Under ordinary circumstances I would have released a first beta of this app weeks ago. I was dissuaded both by the shifting landscape of data as well as by my concern that someone in Tyler might actually try to use it to catch the bus and fail due to its incompleteness. I’m confident now that it sufficiently advertises its failures (lack of Saturday schedules, for example) to prevent this. Thus I present for commentary the first original Hack Tyler app:

Tyler On Time »

The application delivers the following features that I determined to be absolutely necessary in a transit app:

  • Tell me when the bus is coming.
  • Show me where the bus is going to be (maps).
  • Allow me to save my favorite stops.
  • Function acceptably on desktop, tablet, and mobile devices.
  • Be usable (via PhoneGap Build) as a native Android/iPhone app*.
  • Do not require an internet connection.

Of the items on this list, I’m perhaps most excited about having static maps for every stop. I owe their existence almost entirely to the fine folks at Development Seed who created TileMill.

Here is the map for the 1900 N Broadway Ave stop on the Red Line North:

1900 N Broadway

With these maps, I can provide a visual aid to navigation without compromising the app’s ability to run offline. The code for generating the maps can be found in the maps directory of the repository.

There are a number of worthwhile features that have not yet been developed, including a “Stops Near Me” geolocation feature, a crowd-sourcing mechanism for stop landmarks and a dynamic route/stop map for desktop and mobile users with internet access. You can see the complete list of issues and ideas on the project’s Github Issues page.

The most significant problem with the application is the relatively poor accuracy of the departure times. The coarse schedule information available from official sources requires that I estimate times for the vast majority of the stops. Although the estimations are likely good enough to be useful, the algorithm is crude. Consequently, my next step will be to ask Tyler Transit for more detailed timetable data. As I mentioned in my last blog post, it’s my belief that governments are much more likely to produce information if the utility of it is self-evident. Hopefully the existence of Tyler On Time justifies whatever investment would be required for them to release this data.

Though the basic functionality validates my time investment so far, this project also has a couple of significant stretch goals. First, I would like to build an SMS version of the app for users without smartphones. My friends at the awesome cloud-telephony service Tropo have expressed an interest in partnering on this project, which shouldn’t be particularly challenging to implement once better timetables are nailed down.

Second, I would like to convert the bus data into GTFS format and have Google Maps pick up the results. I suspect this would require an official endorsement from Tyler Transit, however, the value of doing so would be very high. It would allow Tylerites and visitors to get directions that include public transit as a navigation option. It would also allow Tyler On Time to provide “walk, ride, walk” directions to users of the application, like this.

Finally, some notes about the technology being used in the app. The stack was heavily inspired by a very successful sprint the Tribapps team executed for the Chicago Breaking News Live application. Similar to that app, Tyler On Time’s logic is entirely client-side, backed by a small amount of Backbone.js (for url routing) and a tremendous amount of Underscore.js (for everything else). The static files themselves are hosted on Amazon S3. Basic styles and responsive switchy design come from the Skeleton framework. It has HTML5 semantic markup. The data processing was scripted primarily with Python, GDAL and csvkit. Stop maps were produced using TileMill with a modified version of Development Seed's custom base layer for Washington D.C. and data from the Smith County Map Site and Open Street Map. The whole thing was developed on Ubuntu Linux. Everything is open source.

I expect to keep iterating this application for at least a month, so please leave your suggestions (especially those of you from Tyler). Hopefully by my next post I will have detailed timetable data and be ready to move forward with additional methods of delivering that information to users.

*The application has not yet been deployed to either the Android Market or the App Store, but those with comfortable installing unsigned Android packages can download a beta here.

Data, suddenly available

Hack Tyler is an idea born out of pragmatism and self-exorcism, but underlying that are my beliefs about open governments, open data and the power of public service. One of the more persuasive statements of this ethos I’ve heard is “Public Equals Online”, the name of the Sunlight Foundation’s 2010 campaign for government transparency. Its not enough that governments produce and warehouse data that is legally accessible to the public—this is the equivalent of building a park in the mountains and not telling anyone it exists. In order for data to be truly public it must be like the town square—open, accessible and obvious.  The corollary benefit is, of course, that someone can come along and build useful things with it.

So it is with great pleasure that I note that the Smith County Mapsite (that also warehouses GIS data for the City of Tyler) now holds official shapefiles for bus routes and bus stops. This is proper survey data and supersedes the information I described aggregating in my last blog post. This raises a few important points:

  • I was wrong. I should have asked for the data first. My desire to get things done probably cost me more time than it would have taken to ask for the data. In addition, I made an ill-founded assumption about what data existed. (The Tyler GIS department clearly has good maps.)
  • Public equals online. This data is now public, it wasn’t before. This is a success. Now its time to learn from this and ask for better timetable data.
  • I wasn’t wasting my time. It has always been my belief that you don’t influence governments by explaining how awesome things could be. You influence them by proving something is useful and then explaining how much more awesome it could be. Its clear that in some (perhaps indirect) sense Hack Tyler caused these files to become public. I’m putting that in the “win” category.
  • As far as hand-crafted shapefiles go, I didn’t do too bad:

Hack Tyler data:

Official data:

Using the official data, I can also revise another calculation: in fact, 72.7% of all streets in Tyler are within a half-mile of a bus stop. That’s not very far given that, according to a Tyler city planner, all buses in Tyler are equipped with bike racks.