Open source urban planning

Last  Saturday, over 100 hackers gathered in the Shatner Ballroom for Hack Ta Ville. They were drawn by the chance to comb through freshly released data—everything from the location and age of Montreal trees to the legal parking times in spots all over the city—to use as building blocks for smart phone applications and websites to improve the average Montrealer’s life. Hackers used the data to write handy programs, including one that locates available parking spots in specified areas and timeframes.

The event was organized by the Community-University Research Alliance (CURA)—a project of the McGill School of Urban Planning, École Polytechnique de Montréal, and SSMU. Its partners included Living Lab de Montréal, Open North, and YellowAPI.

(Alexandra Allaire / McGill Tribune)
(Alexandra Allaire / McGill Tribune)

Jason Prince, director of CURA, helped organize the event. Prince said the idea for the event came from attending other hack-a-thons and a recent trip to Toronto, where finding a swimming pool to take his kids to proved to be a surprisingly difficult task.

Events like Hack Ta Ville give hackers the chance to solve problems like the swimming pool search.

“Think of [hack-a-thons] as just breaking ice. We’re just breaking ice and trying to get through; we don’t know where exactly, but we’re going somewhere,” he said.

Breaking the ice means making more data available to developers, which Prince thinks will lead to better, more user-friendly cities. Data sets, like the real-time locations of Montreal buses, could mean a more convenient public transport experience, and thus, a more sustainable city.

After a full day of brainstorming, workshops, and programming, the clatter of keyboards fell silent for the presentation of eight projects. These ranged from a smart phone application that aims to replace flyers to an interactive website that cyclists can use to learn of biking hazards around the city.

The latter, called Vélobstacles, won the event’s prize for “best data mash-up,” awarded to the project with the best use of city and user data to creatively solve a problem. On the website, a map of Montreal depicts bike accident sites with red dots of various sizes. The number of accidents in an area are inscribed in the dot—the higher the number, the larger the dot.

Cyclists can use the site to spot dangerous intersections on their routes, or to report locations of hazards, including close calls with vehicles or rough road conditions. Another tool on the site allows users to find bike shops and collectives.

(Alexandra Allaire / McGill Tribune)
(Alexandra Allaire / McGill Tribune)

Most of the projects were built over the course of the day by groups of hackers from different disciplines and parts of the city.

George Parker, a second-year masters student in the school of urban planning at McGill, was working on a project called ‘Suggestions à la carte.’

“It’s a special kind of fun,” he said of the time-pressured brainstorming environment.

Many of the projects at Hack Ta Ville were focused on transportation.

Prince said that transportaion projects resonate with hackers. “To me, that’s an obvious [area in which…] opening the data would make the city better.”

An upcoming hack-a-thon will focus on that theme: Living Lab de Montreal, a social technology research project, will host TranspoCamp on No Car Day, September 21.

As for the role of hack-a-thons at McGill, Prince sees them as an important chance for students to get real-world experience lacking in their classes. “This world is rapidly evolving around us. We have to at least try to plug into it.”


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