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.

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.

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