App contest for Chicago transportation and community in progress

The Apps for Metro Chicago competition started on Friday, June 24, 2011. It aims to gather free and useful web and mobile applications (created in any programming language). It’s sponsored by the City of Chicago, the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP), Cook County, and the State of Illinois. You can enter as many apps as you want in two categories, Transportation and Community, and the “Grand Challenge.” You don’t have to be a Chicago resident!

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The Chicago Transit Authority’s (CTA) train tracker website was developed with web standards so that it could work on all browsers, no matter how “dumb” the phone. By developing with standards and for many platforms, your app will get a higher score. You can create a duplicative app for the competition, but you must add unique features or create an innovative design! “Creativity” (uniqueness) will help your app score higher.

The deadline for Transportation apps is August 15th, and for Community apps it’s September 30th. The rules page is lengthy and detailed – I recommend reading it fully before you start putting your submission together.

Using data

The most important qualification is that you must use one of over 175 datasets via one of the links on the rules page. Data sets include:

  • Geography – KML and GIS shapefiles
  • Lists of locations, like libraries, cemeteries, health clinics, workforce centers, etc…
  • Chicago Transit Authority APIs that provide bus and train arrival predictions and system alerts (this is probably the most exciting dataset as its live/in real time)
  • “Regional indicator data” from MetroPulse, a website I find difficult to use and from which to extract data
  • School report card data
  • Other data sources are listed in “App ideas” below

I haven’t looked through every page of the available datasets from the City of Chicago or State of Illinois but it appears that they’re very few feeds and also much more than 175 datasets – the Chicago portal lists over 500. Since Rahm Emanuel became mayor, the Chicago portal has been growing by leaps and bounds. What started as an uninspiring repository for logs of people’s FOIA requests has now become a good place to search and download data on geography, performance metrics, and worker salaries.

App ideas

Many people have already created apps in the past three years that would qualify for this competition. I’m listing a few of them to give you an idea on what you can create.

  • Bus and train trackers, including the CTA’s train tracker it launched in late 2010
  • EveryBlock – this ultimate web application would probably sweep all three rounds in the competition
  • Derek Eder’s maps for: Cook County hospitals, bike crashes, Tax Increment Financing districts, and abandoned buildings

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Bike racks are one of the datasets available with which to create an app for the competition. EveryBlock, a web application for community residents to know more about where they live and to connect with each other, integrates this data.

You could make a new app that:

  • Locates the nearest recycling drop off center in Chicago and provides driving, walking or bicycling directions
  • Compares payments to names of vendors and contractors with names of registered lobbyist affiliations
  • Develop a tour guide for people who want to see designated landmarks in the city
  • Lists towed vehicles; your app would compete with the city’s own website and the Chicago Tribune website
  • Finds the nearest public library and then lists for you the top 20 popular fiction titles at the time

While you’re thinking about what your app should do, also consider what the competition rules pose as what you get you a higher score:

  • Functionality – The highest scoring apps will be built for multiple platforms and that add analytical value to the data.
  • Creativity – The highest scoring apps will emphasize innovative uses of technology and data in a way not seen anywhere else.
  • Longevity – The highest scoring apps will include an outline for long-term business strategy.
  • Usefulness – The highest scoring apps will be built in partnership with excited, potential long-term users of the app.

When you’ve read the rules, make your app! The sponsoring agencies are also offering technical assistance.

Like how over 10 apps for Android and iOS phones and devices popped up after the CTA released APIs for its bus and train trackers, this “data dump,” contest, and possibility to win thousands of dollars should bring forth apps based around sustainable transportation. I note a complete lack of data from Metra, Pace, and the Regional Transportation Authority – the parent organization for those transit agencies and the CTA. You will find Metra geography from the City of Chicago that plots stations and routes, but schedules, performance data, and system alerts are missing. If this data were included we could see apps that incorporate information about all transit modes and routes in Chicago.

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