CategoryApps

Essential apps for traveling in parts of Europe

Train Radar

The Train Radar in Reisplanner Xtra (from NS, the Dutch intercity train operator) is a fun feature to show you trains nearby. The rest of the app is essential for efficient use of NS trains.

I’ve used a bunch of apps that are necessary when you’re traveling within and between countries in the parts of Europe I’m staying in an visiting this year.

The first app you should install is maps.me (iOS, Android, Amazon). It stores maps offline by downloading them from OpenStreetMap. Before leaving for the next city, download it on wifi! Each city takes up 25-60 MB on your phone, and it’s easy to delete a city’s map after you depart. This app is super fast, looks nice, has offline route planning, and can show any area in the world.

Travel apps for the Netherlands

  • Reisplanner Xtra, is essential because it has a journey planner for traveling within the country. It also shows real-time information, and even has a map of all the trains running in the country at that moment. It lists real-time OV-fiets bike availability.
  • NS International, for looking up timetables for trains between the Netherlands and France, Germany, and Belgium. You can’t buy tickets in the app, but it will link you to a shopping cart on the NS International website.
  • 9292.nl, journey planner app for all public transport in the Netherlands. It doesn’t have network maps, though, if you’re only interested in where the Rotterdam Metro goes.
maps.me gets data from OpenStreetMap, the wiki-style map that regular people around the world edit (including myself). The map improves as more people add more information!

maps.me gets data from OpenStreetMap, the wiki-style map that regular people around the world edit (including myself). The map improves as more people add more information!

Travel apps for Germany

  • DB Navigator, this has all public transport in Germany, including intercity trains. It even has intercity trains for so many other countries, regardless if that train has service in Germany. When you look up timetables for trains outside Germany, it will rarely be able to show you the price, but just seeing the schedule, and what trains are available, is important. You can buy tickets within the app, and use the app as a mobile ticket.

Other travel apps

  • Rome2rio, is remarkable because it will show you all ways to get between two cities, and it works worldwide. It incorporates timetables and maps from local transit systems, intercity coach buses, intercity trains, flights, and driving. It’s multimodal, too. It won’t book tickets, but it’s the only service I know of that focuses on showing the multitude of options – simultaneously, with prices! – for future travel planning. And it’s super fast – I think it’s getting results before you even push the “search” button.
Rome2rio showing directions between Stockholm and Malmo

Rome2rio shows results for all modes (and combined modes) between two cities, here listing 11 options on trains, buses, cars, and plans between Stockholm and Mälmo, Sweden.

  • Skyscanner, this flight-finding service has more intra-Europe airlines than services popular in the United States (like Hipmunk, Orbitz, and KAYAK).
  • Captain Train is a continental train ticketing company with a nice app that will sell you tickets for service within and between many countries.
  • Voyages-sncf, is useful if you’ll be taking fast or regular intercity trains in France, but I don’t believe it has mobile ticketing. However, you can buy tickets in the app or on the website and pick up the tickets at a vending machine at many train stations in France. This is where I bought a Thalys (high-speed train) ticket; it’s better than NS International and the Belgian equivalent from SNCB.
  • United, this airline has implemented a superior entertainment system. I call it “Netflix in the sky”. To be clear, Netflix isn’t involved. It works like this: Install the United app on your device, and then connect to the airplane’s wifi network. There’s a server in the plane that has a lot of movies and TV shows, and these stream directly to your device. This is especially useful in United’s older 767 planes that don’t have seatback screens (IFE).

What apps do you recommend and why?

The U.S. DOT should collaborate with existing “National Transit Maps” makers

The U.S. DOT demonstrated one idea for how a National Transit Map might look and work at a conference in February.

The Washington Post reported this month that the United States Department of Transportation is going to develop a “National Transit Map” because, frankly, one doesn’t exist. The U.S. DOT said such a map could reveal “transit deserts” (the screen capture above shows one example from Salt Lake City, discussed below).

Secretary Anthony Foxx wrote in an open letter to say that the department and the nation’s transit agencies “have yet to recognize the full potential” of a data standard called the General Transit Feed Specification that Google promoted in order to integrate transit routing on its maps. Foxx described two problems that arose out of not using “GTFS”.

  1. Transit vehicles have significantly greater capacity than passenger cars, but are often considered just vehicles because we are unable to show where and when the transit vehicles are scheduled to operate. The realistic treatment of transit for planning, performance measures, and resiliency requires real data on transit system operations.
  2. One of the most important social values of transit is that it makes transportation available to people who do not have access to private automobiles, and provides transportation options for those who do. Yet, we cannot describe this value at a national level and in many regions because we do not have a national map of fixed transit routes.

“The solution is straightforward”, Foxx continued, “[is] a national repository of voluntarily provided, public domain GTFS feed data that is compiled into a common format with data from fixed route systems.”

The letter went on to explain exactly how the DOT would compile the GTFS files, and said the first “collection day” will be March 31, this week. As of this writing, the website to which transit agencies must submit their GTFS files is unavailable.

What Foxx is asking for has already been done to some degree. Two national transit maps and one data warehouse already exist and the DOT should engage those producers, and others who would use the map, to determine the best way to build a useful but inexpensive map and database. Each of the two existing maps and databases was created by volunteers and are already-funded projects so it would make sense to maximize the use of existing projects and data.

“Transitland” is a project to host transit maps and timetables for transit systems around the world. It was created by Mapzen, a company funded by Samsung to build open source mapping and geodata tools. Transitland is also built upon GTFS data from agencies all over the world. Its data APIs and public map can help answer the question: How many transit operators serve Bay Area residents, and what areas does each service?

For the United States, Transitland hosts and queries data from transit agencies in 31 states and the District of Columbia. In Washington, D.C., Transitland is aware of four transit agencies. It’s a great tool in that respect: Not all of the four transit agencies are headquartered in D.C. or primarily serve that city. The app is capable of understanding spatial overlaps between municipal and regional geographies and transit agencies.

Transitland has a “GUI” to show you how much transit data it has around the world.

“Transit Explorer” is an interactive map of all rail transit and bus rapid transit lines in the United States, Mexico, and Canada. Yonah Freemark, author of The Transport Politic, created the map using data culled from OpenStreetMap, the National Transit Atlas Database (administered by the DOT and which shows fixed-guideway transit), and his own research. I wrote the custom JavaScript code for the Leaflet-powered map.

No other agency or project has collected this much data about fixed-guideway transit lines in any of the three countries, since the map includes detailed information about line lengths, ridership, and other characteristics that are not included in GTFS data. Transit Explorer, though, does not include local bus service or service frequencies, which the DOT’s map may if it incorporates the full breadth of GTFS data.

Transit Explorer also goes a step further by providing data about under construction and proposed fixed-guideway transit lines, which is information that is very relevant to understanding future neighborhood accessibility to transit, but which is not available through GTFS sources.

Finally, “GTFS Data Exchange” is a website that has been storing snapshots of GTFS feeds from agencies around the world for almost a decade, or about as long as GTFS has been used in Google Maps. The snapshots allow for service comparisons of a single agency across time. For example, there are over 100 versions of the GTFS data for the Chicago Transit Authority, stretching back to November 2009; new versions are added – by “cta-archiver” – twice a month.

Josh Cohen, writing in Next City, highlighted the significance of Google’s invention of GTFS, saying, “Prior to the adoption of GTFS, creating such a map would’ve been unwieldy and likely produced an out-of-date product by the time it was completed.” The DOT’s own National Transit Atlas Database includes only fixed-guideway (a.k.a. trains) routes, and hasn’t been updated since 2004.

Not all GTFS feeds are created equal, though. Some transit agencies don’t include all of the data, some of which is optional for Google Map’s purpose, that would make the National Transit Map useful for the spatial analysis the DOT intends. Many agencies don’t include the “route shapes”, or the geographic lines between train stations and bus stops. Researchers are able to see where the vehicles stop, but not which streets or routes they take. Foxx’s letter doesn’t acknowledge this. It does, however, mention that transit agencies can use some federal funds to create the GTFS data.

David Levinson, professor at the University of Minnesota, believes the map will bias coverage (geographic reach of transit service) over frequency (how many buses are run each day that someone could ride).

The U.S. DOT’s chief data officer, Dan Morgan, whom I met at Transportation Camp 2015 in Washington, D.C., presented at the FedGIS Conference this year one idea to demonstrate coverage and frequency in Salt Lake City, using the GTFS data from the Utah Transit Authority.

Levinson also tweeted that it will be difficult for a national map to show service because of the struggles individual transit providers have symbolizing their own service patterns.

Foxx’s letter doesn’t describe how planners will be able to download the data in the collection, but whichever app they build or modify will cost money. Before going much further, and before spending any significant funds, Foxx should consult potential users and researchers to avoid duplicating existing projects that may ultimately be superior resources.

Foxx can also take advantage of “18F” a new agency within the General Services Administration to overcome government’s reputation for creating costly and difficult to use apps. The GSA procures all kinds of things the federal government needs, and 18F may be able to help the DOT create the National Transit Map (and database) in a modern, tech and user-friendly way – or write a good RFP for someone else to make it.

Look for the National Transit Map this summer.

Updated: 311 is back in the spotlight after 3 years

Updated October 21: Rahm has dropped the plan to privatize 311, but explained that the offer was less about saving $1 million annually than it was to upgrade the tech. I still don’t think it was explained well enough – or challenged enough by City Council – why a privatization was the “only” way to get an upgrade worth $25-50 million, or why the upgrade would cost that much. Then, there’s still the open question as to what happened to the RFP in 2014, looking for bidders to create a new 311 system. I’m also curious if any of the nascent civic-oriented CRM and Open311 startups would have a reasonable chance at responding to an RFP or privatization effort, or if the RFP process would largely exclude new or small players. 

Last week, for budget “season” in Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel proposed privatizing the 311 system – where citizens and aldermen request services from any city department, and citizens get information about city services – as a way to pay for the technology upgrade the system desperately needs.

There are over 300 service request types (codes), of which many are available to the public (the rest being for internal or aldermanic use). Here’s the full list of codes and the department that administers or manages the requests.

The topic of analyzing 311 data came up tonight at ChiHackNight, and I talked to a DePaul University Student interested in using their predictive analytics study on this rich (maybe) dataset.

I brought them up to speed on the changes made to the 311 technology system and created this “status” document to demonstrate the wild and whacky year of changes in 2012, and the stagnation since then. I’m publishing this because I also want to collect ideas and feedback about things I don’t know regarding the progress in redeveloping the tech that powers Chicago’s 311.

311 technology chronology

2012

Code for America fellows come to Chicago and work with DoIT to develop 13 service request types (codes) for Open311, a layer on 311 that enables third-party apps to submit new service requests – with photos. See what other cities have adopted Open311.

I pled with the Chief Technology Officer at the time, John Tolva, holding a new position in the mayor’s office, to enable 5 of the bicycle and pedestrian-related codes in the Open311 system, so that I can build apps for Grid Chicago, and later, Streetsblog Chicago, readers to request city services that impact the safety and quality around walking and biking.

Ben Sheldon, one of the four Code for America fellows, made SuperMayor.io, and it’s one of the few Open311-based apps that’s still working (most of the apps linked to from this Smart Chicago Collaborative blog post are dead).

2013

The City of Chicago releases an RFP to remake the 311 system (September). One aspect of operating the system I noticed that better tech could probably have a big impact on is the number of service request taken by phone: 74%!

Channels through which 311 service requests are submitted

According to the RFP issued in 2013, 74% of service requests are taken by phone. Only about 6% are done through the web.

2014

Companies respond to the RFP (I assume). Are these responses hosted anywhere? Smart Chicago Collaborative made Chicago Works For You, a dashboard that’s also  the only Chicago + Open311 map.

The RFP never made it past “Step 4” in the Bid Tracker, or, “Short List Determination”. The Bid Tracker is really unhelpful at this point, though, because it doesn’t mark the date at which Step 4 was reached.

Bid tracker for the 311 RFP

The helpful (to a point) Bid Tracker for the 311 RFP.

2015

Mayor Emanuel announces a proposal to privatize the 311 system, including the technology and the staff, to be able to pay for the tech upgrade. Emanuel says it would save the city about $1 million annually.

Aldermen don’t like this. While I haven’t read up on their specific complaints, I believe they have to do with the quality of the jobs that would exist under a private operator.

Currently the 73** employees work for the city and have benefits like healthcare and probably some retirement assistance. The new jobs could be, well, anything, and if they’re like other call centers, probably pay less and could have worse benefits.

There’s also the question of whether anyone else can actually do the same (or better) job for less money (a question that 6th Ward Alderman Roderick Sawyer raised). That means someone other than people in the mayor’s office need to be able to get a detailed look at the expenses of the 311 call center and tech.

Andy Shaw questions why the privatization proposal is coming up now: “The timing is odd because the administration recently sent an enlightened privatization ordinance to the Council for approval, so it’s logical for the city to wait until it’s analyzed, and then adopted, before embarking on new privatization initiatives” and “the ordinance has 40 aldermanic co-sponsors but hasn’t been heard in committee yet, so it’s premature to consider privatizing 3-1-1”.

Shaw suggests using the do-nothing legally-separate-entity Chicago Infrastructure Trust to upgrade the service. (The new board members Emanuel installed this year have “set an ambitious goal”, Shaw said, to convert the city’s streetlights to something more energy efficient. It would likely work by splitting the cost savings with a private contractor.

** The city’s salary dataset on the open data portal lists 56 employees with “311” in the job title. They collectively earn $3,519,732.00 annually.

Thank you to Derek Eder, Eric Sherman, George Nakhleh, and Dan O’Neil for the discussion and links.

Updated Monday, Oct. 12 to add quotes from Better Government Association’s Andy Shaw (a former investigative reporter for a TV station).

The best way to store directions on your smartphone is low tech

map of southern illinois as seen in the OsmAnd app

OsmAnd has great offline mapping features but it was tedious to ensure I had all of the maps at the desired zoom levels for the three-city bike ride in southern Illinois (pictured).

My friend is going to pick up a unique bicycle in Ohio and ride it back to Chicago. He designed a good route on Google Maps but now he needs to save it to his smartphone so he doesn’t have to constantly load directions and use data and waste battery life.

I gave him these instructions:

The best way to get a mobile view of the route is to use the Google Maps print feature and save it as a PDF. Then transfer that PDF to your phone through the Dropbox app. Then, in the Dropbox app, mark the PDF file as a favorite so that it’s stored offline, onto the phone.

There’s probably an app that can do what he wants, but I don’t know about it. There are hundreds of “maps” apps to sort through in each the App Store for iOS and the Play Store for Android.

In fact, I’ve downloaded OsmAnd, an offline maps app, for my Android tablet. I installed it and tried to learn how to use it in order to follow a downstate, intercity bike camping route. The app, though, required that you zoom in to each part of the map you wanted to store and then press “download”.

 

I spent 30 minutes downloading parts of the map, manually panning to the next section, before I decided to instead obtain one of the Illinois Department of Transportation’s regional bike maps and just draw it on there and write out a “cue sheet” (turn by turn directions).

Why the Slow Roll Chicago working group uses GitHub to collaborate

When the Slow Roll Chicago project in the transportation breakout group began in December at Hack Night, the emails started flying right away.

This was mainly because there was a lot to say at the start, as we needed to agree on the group’s mission and plan.

Problems using email started immediately, though. Not only were there many emails going back and forth among people listed on the TO and CC fields, there were people who weren’t able to take part in these discussions.

That happened because it was difficult to keep track of who had been added to the discussion and who hadn’t, especially when it came to integrating new members of the group.

I wanted to overcome these problems by using a proper collaboration tool.

Email wasn’t just limiting our discussion quality and member inclusion, it was also limiting file storage, file sharing, and file versioning (which file is the latest?). Email has tended to demand a lot of attention, and there’s a lot of wasted time typing responses. I wanted to use a tool that didn’t have such demands, and that helped organize responses into actionable requests and delegation.

Using email made it impossible to see what tasks people were working on, and the progress they were making at any given moment.

Finally, email tends to be private but our work needed to be public so that it could be independently verified but also replicated for use in other locales.

I believe that it’s easier to train people on how to use a new tool well than to retrain on how to use an existing tool – email – better.

GitHub has solved all of these problems for our group while also creating a secure and versioned programming code storage system for the final outcome: a website.

Hack Night being a tech-oriented meetup is a good reason to use and teach this modern tool widely used by people in technology industries. Many of our members are still learning it but they have support from people within our group and from others who attend Hack Night.

GitHub handles our discussions, task assignments, task progress, notes, and files. Here’s how:

When you want to discuss a new idea, like using dynamic images to show what a building could look like under certain conditions, you would make a new “issue”, titled, “Use dynamic images to show the user some building design possibilities”. Use rich text and images in the issue to describe and visualize the idea.

GitHub has granular notifications settings that alert project members to this new “issue” after which they can respond to your idea. After it’s decided that the issue should be resolved in a specific way, you can assign the issue a desired milestone (a future project version) and project members.

One milestone could be “Preview to the management team” which is a previously-discussed status that should happen in a couple weeks. A second milestone could be “Post-launch” – things to finish after launching the product – that’s defined offline.

Each milestone tracks the issues that you’ve associated with it so you can see progress. When the assigned members finish a task, they “resolve” the issue by closing it.

Need documentation? For many coding or GIS projects, a data dictionary may be necessary and GitHub provides each project repository with a wiki in which you would describe how the project is set up, and what certain fields or values mean.

Finally, GitHub can store files – any kind, and as many versions. If you need to update a CSV file of street addresses for the project, just make the edits in your preferred editor on the desktop and then “commit” your changes with a short description of what you changed. Sync this commit back to the repository so that all project members now have access to the file.

Meet Chicago’s newest street view fleet: bikes

Bicycle holds an iPhone to take street view-style images

This position gives the smartphone an unimpeded view of the street but prevents the user from manipulating it.

I first used the Mapillary app on iPhone last fall, in August, and I uploaded one photo, of my arm, which I can’t delete from the website. I uploaded a couple more photos from a street in Roscoe Village in November.

This week, though, I uploaded 500 photos from a three mile journey on California and Milwaukee Avenues in Chicago – streets that no one else had photographed for the Mapillary street view service.

Mapillary is an open source (sort of) street view service, originally developed in Sweden, which allows the public to contribute photos taken with their smartphone app.

What’s “sort of” about Mapillary being open source is that it appears that the company owns the photos once you upload them. People are free to use the photos to edit OpenStreetMap, or publish elsewhere – for personal use only – with attribution that adheres to Creative Commons 4.0. People who want to use the photos in a commercial application must subscribe to a pay service.

Mounting an iPhone to a bicycle

I took the jump from contributing nothing to uploading a whole lot because I bought an iPhone mount for my bicycle. After months of research – okay, chalk it up to my being lazy and it being really cold outside – I settled on the DgRock Universal Bicycle Mount from Amazon for $9. I was perplexed that there was a gap in choices between this decent $9 product and the next group, hovering around $30-40.

After three days of use, I’m satisfied, despite limitations that are present in all mounts I surveyed. The DgRock mount is solid, barely moves even as the bike bounces along Chicago’s pothole-ridden streets, and securely holds the iPhone with a strong, spring-loaded grip. It’s universal in two ways: it holds nearly any smartphone (it probably can’t hold one with a screen 5″ or larger) and it attaches to most bicycle handlebars.

The first day I used the DgRock mount Mapillary complained with a red icon that it couldn’t get a proper fix on its location and therefore it wouldn’t start photographing. Fine, I was in downtown Chicago where connecting to GPS satellites can be hard. I figured the wifi positioning system that all smartphones and tablets use would suffice.

There are problems with the mount, but I think these apply to all bicycle smartphone mounts: When the phone is in position to take photos, meaning its horizontal and level to the ground, you can’t see the screen. That’s because the screen, mounted on the handlebars, is much lower than your eyes and faces vertically, instead of angled towards your face. The only way around this, I believe, is to either get an upright bicycle (like my WorkCycles Fr8) or an adjustable lens (I can’t find any).

Smartphone mount holding an iPhone on a bicycle

This position allows the user to manipulate the smartphone but you cannot take street view-style images.

The possible position angles of the smartphone when held by the mount was my main concern as I was shopping on Amazon: The mount need to have the flexibility to position the smartphone so its rear camera could be level with the ground. Smartphone mounts, though, are made to put the device in a position to be used and viewed frequently by the bicycle rider – it was unclear if many of the other smartphone mounts could accommodate the street view angles requirement.

The DgRock has no issue moving the iPhone into the right position, as you can see in the photos from my journey (or scroll to the end). Its issue, though, is that you have to put the smartphone in “backwards” so that the claw covers up part of the screen. I call it an issue but it doesn’t disturb the mount’s primary purpose when using Mapillary – the phone still has a clear view of the street.

Even with an upright bike like mine, though, it’s difficult to see the screen. I believe that Mapillary can actually design its app to help overcome this physical limitation.

Using Mapillary

The Mapillary app has improved greatly since the first version. It allows you to delete bad or undesired photos before uploading, and it has a simpler interface to go from opening the app to making your own street view. There are a couple changes I think would improve the user experience and lead to more contributions.

I would like to be able to turn off the screen while using Mapillary to save battery life. I think that the screen could fade to black and a small white dot or halo appears frequently to remind you that it’s working. I’d also like it to chime when iOS throws the “low storage” warning. Otherwise I may be riding along, thinking Mapillary is capturing the street, when iOS had actually run out of storage 10 minutes ago.

Android versus iOS: my Chicago Bike Laws experience

Chicago Bike Laws: dooring info

Screenshot of Chicago Bike Laws, highlighting the dooring law.

For all this talk that more people use Android, and Android has the biggest and still-growing chunk of the smartphone market (in the United States and the world), I’m not seeing that reflected in how many downloads there are of my two apps.

Chicago Bike Laws is a free app that has been available for Android (download) since November 4 and on iOS (download) since November 9, a 5-day difference. Yet the iOS version has had more installations (58) since then while people have downloaded the Android version 32 times (but 5 people removed it).

What gives? The app is exactly the same for both platforms.

Are Chicago bicyclists more likely to have iPhones? I don’t do any platform-specific promotion so you can count that out.

(The experience I’ve had with Chicago Bike Guide activity is different because the Android version came online over a year later and has always been a paid app – Android apps cannot switch between free and paid while iOS apps can. By the way, the Chicago Bike Guide is free for iOS right now and half-off for Android. The comparison is that the adoption rate is much slower for the Android version.)

Update on my work this summer: Chicago Bike Guide now on Android

Yesterday I released the first version of my app for the Android operating system. The Chicago Bike Guide (born the Chicago Offline Bike Map) had been available for iOS since April 2012 and the most frequent question I heard was, “When will you have an Android version?” At first I was probably joking when I said it was coming soon as I had no interest in it. But things change: more people kept asking, I was slowly learning how to publish an app for Android, I bought a tablet myself on which to test it, and Android eclipsing iOS as the most dominant mobile OS had some effect.

I use PhoneGap software to compile the Chicago Bike Guide for iOS. My app is actually an HTML5 compliant website using jQueryMobile and PhoneGap allows this website to interact with some of the hardware on the iPhone (like the GPS components) and software (native notification buttons). PhoneGap compiles for Android and other operating systems, but my experience using the Android emulator put a damper on my progress.

I would install Google’s software development kit (SDK), including Eclipse, and load the app (er, website) into the emulator and it would be terribly slow. It didn’t emulate the Android experience very well. I did this twice; I don’t remember making any additional progress the second time but I probably made different progress, slightly expanding my understanding of how to make Android apps.

PhoneGap 3.0.0 came around, and its use requires focusing on the command line to build apps. In prior versions, for iOS, you would add “helper software” to Xcode but now it creates the Xcode project for you. It was easier to use this time around, as the process in this version was simpler to understand, use, and the documentation had improved. I felt it was time to try again to make an Android version so I “made the plunge” and bought the Asus MeMO Pad HD 7″ tablet from my local Micro Center.

At first I used the tablet to test my app (website) as a website, loading it over the network from my Mac’s web server. After fixing a lot of the display bugs I moved into native app testing. One command, “cordova build android”, and an APK I can email to my tablet appears 30 seconds later. This is one of the few areas where Android has iOS beat in terms of testing.

The iOS development environment requires so much setting up with developer profiles, team profiles, and other gunk I forget the names of. With Android, you simply email the ChicagoBikeGuide-debug.apk file to your device and open it in the Gmail app. Voilá.

After getting this far I stopped progress on developing for Android as I wanted to issue a new version for iOS with features and bug fixes I’d been working on since the last release in July (version 0.8.2). With that out of the way last week, and the new version waiting for Apple’s review, I worked on the Android version on Sunday and finished it today.

Did you catch that? I uploaded version 0.8.3 for iOS on October 3 and it’s been in review since then while in less than 24 hours I set up my Google Play Developer Console ($25 per year), merchant account, store listing, and started selling the Android version.

N.B. Google Play doesn’t allow you to switch the app between free and not free like the iTunes App Store does, so I cannot release it for free during a short promotional period like I did for the iOS platform.

After a sufficient period (a few days, perhaps) of no reports of it crashing, I will promote the Android version heavily.

New iOS app offers most advanced Divvy route directions

Chicago Bike Route for iOS

Walking directions from my house to the Divvy station at the CTA California Blue Line station, and then from there to the Divvy station at LaSalle/Illinois Streets. Lastly, there’s walking directions to some arbitrary N LaSalle Street address.

Adam Gluck and Andrew Beinstein showed up at OpenGov Hack Night on July 16, 2013, to show off the technical concept of their forthcoming app for iOS devices. I looped them into the Divvy app-making progress I and others were undertaking (documented on a shared Google Doc).

They said they would make their app was going quite different from all of the eight apps for using Divvy that have since launched before theirs: it would offer directions for walking to the nearest Divvy station with available bikes, directions to the Divvy station nearest their destination with open docks, and then walking directions from that end station to their destination.

Chicago Bike Route launched Friday last week. Currently only three of the eight iOS apps released before Chicago Bike Route have routing. CBR takes directions to a new level by giving you directions from where you are to where you want to go, and not necessarily from a specific Divvy station (like my Chicago Bike Guide does). Instead, CBR gives you complete directions between origin and destination and smartly picks the nearest Divvy station with available bikes. Now, I believe most often this will just be the nearest Divvy station, period, as it’s relatively rare for a station to lack bicycles.

The app uses Google Directions and for every trip makes a maximum of three calls to their API; counts against the app’s free quota from Google. The first call gets walking directions from the origin to the nearest Divvy station with available bikes, and the second call gets bicycling directions to the Divvy station with available docks nearest the destination, and the third call (assuming the destination isn’t that Divvy station) gets walking directions from the end Divvy station to your destination. The next step, I believe, is to have the app use a prediction model to accurately choose the end Divvy station. A lot can happen at that Divvy station in the 30 minutes (or whatever) it takes to get there. It may not have open docks when you arrive.

Two other suggestions I have: an improvement to the autocomplete destination function because it didn’t recognize “Chicago city hall” or its address, “121 N LaSalle Street”; and adding a “locate me” button. Additionally I’d like them to add some basic resources to advise users on where they can get more information about Divvy or bicycling in Chicago.

Adam and Andrew are going to publish a “dock surfing” function in the app that will incorporate multiple segments on Divvy to make a trip longer than the free 30 minute period. This would probably mean a fourth call to the Google Directions API. I emailed Adam and Andrew to learn more about the app development.

Video of Beinstein and Gluck presenting their app to Hack Night. Created by Christopher Whitaker for Smart Chicago Collaborative.

Why did you make Chicago Bike Route?

We made the app because we wanted to make something civic related. We thought that Divvy was an exciting new civic program coming into existence, and we kept seeing it all over the place. It also solves a real problem in public transportation that we notice and hear about a lot living in Hyde Park called the “last mile problem.” We also had the data in our hands from having attended civic hack night at 1871 when Divvy came and we thought “let’s make a native Divvy app!” And that’s what we did. We also released a framework for interacting with the Divvy API natively for developers who don’t want to get their hands dirty playing around with the iOS frameworks.

What makes your app stand out from the pack?

I think the routing but also the simplicity of design of the app.  We wanted it to be something you could just open up and use and was like all the other mapping utilities that one has on their phone (Google Maps, Apple Maps). And that’s what we did. You open it, enter an address, and you get routed to that address. Something that people could use to get up and running with Divvy with basically no familiarity with the system.

What features are you planning for the future?

Bike surfing! Seriously though. We think that it would be a really useful feature for some people, and also help reduce the cost of using the bikes. It would be useful for the regular riders where the $2 additional charge could really add up but also if you are someone who is not part of the program and are just taking the bike out for a joy ride. It can actually get kind of expensive, since every half hour after the first hour in a half is an additional $8, rather than $4.50 for members. You would also be less familiar with the bike stations under that situation. We also need to integrate with Chicago public transportation. But, we also want to keep with the simplicity, and create a user experience with basically no learning curve, and we are a little cautious to throw something in that could complicate things.

How I created a map of Illinois Amtrak routes in TileMill in less than 30 minutes

This interactive map was created for a Grid Chicago article to show the cities and Amtrak routes mentioned. Click and drag it around or hover your mouse on the red train station markers. 

Want to create a map like that and publish it on your own website? It’s easy. I’ll show you how to do it in less than 30 minutes. First, download the following files:

All shapefiles are from the United States Department of Transportation, Bureau of Transportation Statistics’s National Transportation Atlas 2012 edition except for Illinois places, which comes from the Census Bureau’s TIGER project.

At the end of this tutorial, you’ll have a good introduction on how to find geographic data, build a map with TileMill, style the map, and publish it for the public. Your map will not look like mine as this tutorial doesn’t describe how to add labels or use the hover/info feature.

Tutorial to make Amtrak Illinois map

  1. Unzip the four ZIP files you downloaded and move their contents into a folder, like /Documents/GIS/Amtrak Illinois/shapefiles. This is your project folder.
  2. Install TileMill and open it.
  3. Set up a project. In the Projects pane, click “New Project”. In the filename field, title it “amtrak_illinois”. Ensure that the checkbox next to “Default data” is checked – this shows a world map and helps you get your bearings (but it’s not absolutely necessary).
  4. Get familiar with TileMill’s layout. Your new project will open with the map on the left side and your Carto style code on the right side. There are four buttons aligning the left edge of your map. From top to bottom they are: Templates, Font list, Carto guide, and Layers.
  5. Add a layer. We’re going to add the four shapefile layers you downloaded. Click the “Layers” button and then click “Add layer”. In the ID field, type in “amtrak_routes”. For Datasource, browse to your project folder and find “amtrak.shp” – this file has the Amtrak route lines. Then click “Done”. Click “Save & Style”.
  6. Style that layer. When you click “Save & Style” after adding a layer, your attention will be called to the Carto style code on the right side of TileMill. A section of code with the “amtrak_routes” #selector will have been inserted with some default colors and styles. If you know CSS, you will be familiar with how to change the Amtrak routes line styles. Change the “line-color” to “#000”. After “line-color”, add a new line and insert “line-opacity: 0.5;”. This will add some transparency to the line. Press the “Save” button above the code.
  7. Add remaining layers. Repeat Step 5 and add 3 more layers: “amtrk_sta.shp” (ID field: “amtrak_stations”), “state.shp” (ID field: “states”), and “tl_2012_17_place.shp” (ID field: “illinois_cities”).
  8. Hide bus stations. The Amtrak stations layer shows bus and ferry stations as part of Amtrak’s Thruway connections. You probably don’t want to show these. In your Carto style code, rename the #selector from “#amtrak_stations” to “#amtrak_stations[STNTYPE=’RAIL’]”. That makes the following style code only apply to stations with the “rail” type. Since there’s no style definition for things that aren’t of that type, they won’t appear.

Screenshot of my map.

Prepare your map for uploading

TileMill has many exporting options. You can save it as MBTiles and publish the map for free using MapBox (TileMill’s parent), or you can export it as image files (but it won’t be interactive), or you can display the map using the Leaflet JavaScript map library (which I use for the Chicago Bike Map app). This tutorial will explain how to export MBTiles and upload to MapBox, the server I’m using to display the map at the top of this page.

  1. Change project settings. To upload to MapBox, you’ll have to export your project as MBTiles, a proprietary format. Click the “Export” button above your Carto style code and click “MBTiles”. You’ll be asked to provide a name, description, attribution, and version. Input appropriate text for all but version.
  2. Adjust the zoom levels. Adjust the number of zoom levels you want (the more you have the longer it takes to export and upload your project, and you might exceed MapBox’s free 50 MB account limit). My map has zoom levels 8-11.
  3. Adjust the bounds. You’ll then want to draw your bounds: how much of the map’s geographic extents you want to export. Zoom to a level where you can see the entire state of Illinois in your map. Hold down the Shift key and drag a box around the state, plus a buffer (so viewers don’t fall of your map when they pan to the edges).
  4. Export your map. Click Export and watch the progress! On a four-year-old MacBook it took less than one minute to export the project.
  5. Bring the export to your project folder. When export finishes, click the “Save” button and browse to your project folder. Click the file browser’s save button.
  6. Upload to MapBox. Login to MapBox’s website and click “Upload Layer”. Browse to your project folder, select the .mbtiles folder, and click “Upload file”. Upon a successful upload, your map will display.
  7. Embed it in your website. Click the “Share” button in the upper left corner of your map and copy the embed code. Paste this into the HTML source code of a webpage (or in a WordPress post) and save that (I’m not going to provide instructions on how to do that).

Now you know how to find geographic data, build a custom map using the TileMill application, begin to understand how to style it, and embed your map for the public on a website or blog.

N.B. I was originally going to use QGIS to build a map and then publish a static image before I realized that TileMill + MapBox (the website) can build a map but publish an interactive feature instead of a static image. I’m happy I went that route. However, I did use QGIS to verify the data and even create a new shapefile of just a few of the key train stations on the Lincoln Service (the centerpiece of my Grid Chicago article).

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