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Hackers Work To Improve Getting In And Around Philadelphia

By KYW tech editor Ian Bush

Hackers usually land in the news for things like the breach that exposed the personal information of millions of government employees. But this weekend in Philadelphia and across the country, there's a very different kind of hacking going on -- one that aims to improve your life by using data.

"There's transit, airport, bike share, parking, all kinds of transportation data available, so the projects vary around those data sets," says Mike Zaleski, SEPTA's director of emerging and specialty technology.

Along the mezzanine of the agency's Market Street headquarters, a couple dozen developers hunch over laptops, working on apps to help you find a parking spot in the city, to better use bike share, and one to crowd source transit troubles.

"If you've ever used or seen the app called Waze, is basically Waze for transit," explains Chris Alfano, co-captain at Code for Philly. "People using a transit system can look up a line, see if anyone has reported issues with it, and then report it themselves. So if you're waiting at the train station and the train hasn't showed up for 30 minutes, you put a note on there and someone a few stops down will see the train's been delayed."

Part of the National Day of Civic Hacking, it's the fourth year for this hack-a-thon, which has expanded from a transit focus to include all modes of transportation in Philadelphia. Some, you'll find in your smartphone's app store; others, on the web. Zaleski says SEPTA's control center used one: "a simulator that would take in the train schedules and allow you to make adjustments to those schedules and then export the dataset again and actually have a visualization to go with it."

Panelists from sponsors Azavea, ThoughtWorks Inc., and Jarvus Innovations give developers feedback on how the apps would work in the real world.

"The whole point of this weekend isn't to build finished products but to take things from fuzzy idea to slightly more concrete idea," Alfano says.

To fuel these projects, the developers use open data from the city and transportation agencies. That's something Alfano says Philadelphia is known for.

"Philadelphia is definitely a leader in the open data movement -- it's not just something we say, it's something everyone around the country says," he notes. "Philadelphia has been a role model for other cities."

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