The information technology team at VIA Metropolitan Transit and the transportation working group of the Alex Briseño Leadership Development Program (ABLDP) of the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce fed and watered 53 coders during a 24-hour codeathon last weekend, an opportunity to improve the public transit experience in San Antonio through tech.

VIA's Vice President of Information Technology Steve Young welcomes the crowd to the Codeathon awards ceremony.
VIA’s Vice President of Information Technology Steve Young welcomes the crowd to the Codeathon awards ceremony. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

“We’re really starting to think differently at VIA,” Steve Young, vice president of information technology at VIA, told the group of coders. “We know that VIA is going to be an important part of quality of life in San Antonio going forward. We are growing by leaps and bounds as a city, and there’s no way we can build our way out of this with just roadways.

“You guys, thinking innovatively, what can we do with data, what can we do with APIs, how can we merge those things together and come up with something fantastic for us?”

The 24-hour, open-source review, GoCodeSA, gave coders access to VIA data sets so they could mine, analyze, and strategize through the night coding their way to transportation solutions as well as prize money. The event was part of VIA’s investment in technology that has introduced new initiatives like free system wide Wi-Fi, digital payment systems, the goMobile app, and a redesigned website with an improved trip planner.

Planning for the codeathon began more than a year ago.

“We wanted to get buy-in [for our ideas] from VIA, so we started working with them,” said Hernan Rozemberg, external affairs coordinator at the Alamo Area Council of Governments and member of the ABLDP working team. “That’s when they said, ‘What we’ve been trying to explore is technology. We have all these data sets and haven’t been able to look into it and how we could use it.’ This spun off from that.”

VIA gave codeathon participants a list of eight new challenges to address with tech – like how to assist disabled transit users, help riders identify parking availability, and increase ridership – or they could develop their own. The participants also got some inspiration to get started.

“I think what’s cool about what you’re doing here today is creating a community space in a really innovative way to make quality of life better in San Antonio,” Molly Cox, president and CEO of SA2020, told the group. “And I am so excited to see what you ultimately come up with, with your fancy coding stuff.”

Emcee Molly Cox kicks off the VIA Codeathon at the Geekdom Event Center.
Emcee and President and CEO of SA2020 Molly Cox kicks off the VIA Codeathon at the Geekdom Event Center. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Information security expert Jeffrey Reich also addressed the group before they took a “nerd walk” from Geekdom’s Event Centre to the Codeup offices on Navarro Street, saying, “Go find a way to make stuff better.”

By Sunday morning, each of the 15 teams had answered the challenge, with Team “Rocket Tiers” winning the top prize of $2,000. Jessica Rocha and Ronnie Rocha came up with an app allowing users to ask Amazon’s Alexa for next-bus arrivals at their favorite stops, and a companion mobile app.

Second place winner was team “Standard Deviants,” made up of William Bunker, Luke Diaz, Evan Hoover, Andrew Means, and Tom Verry. Third place was team “WebDevs,” with Manuel Cerna, Joel Gilbert, Carlos Navarro, Roberto Navarro, and Wesley Supnet.

Ronnie Rocha (left) and Jessica Rocha from team "Rocket Tier" present their project at Codeathon awards.
Ronnie Rocha (left) and Jessica Rocha from team “Rocket Tiers” present their project at the Codeathon awards ceremony. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Throughout the caffeinated codeathon, fueled by sponsors like Pepsi, Rosella, and more, VIA’s data gurus Robert Doyal and Deepa Kumar provided motivation, prizes, and schedule reminders to the teams via Slack, the digital communication tool for teams. Even VIA’s mascot, Primo, made an appearance.

“When I started with VIA, I got excited about public transit,” said Doyal, VIA’s web administrator. “I hopped on a bus for the first time and the bus is going along the route and he’s not stopping. I missed my stop. And I didn’t realize you have to pull a cord – or that bus will not stop.”

No one wants to be “that” guy, he said, the one who doesn’t know how to ride the bus. And when asked on Saturday how many of the coders had used VIA to get to the codeathon, only one raised his hand.

“We know we’re only part of the solution,” Young said. So, like other cities and ride-sharing companies, VIA is partnering with car- and bike-sharing organizations like Zipcar and San Antonio B-cycle to integrate and make use of live data to widen and incentivize the use of public transportation.

They do that through the use of GTFS, data sets that model a particular aspect of transit information: stops, routes, trips, and other schedule data. It’s another way VIA is increasing its use of technology to improve passenger experience and increase ridership.

Transportation deserves the focus it’s getting from VIA and in almost every race of this year’s municipal election runoffs. Between 2010 and 2040, the population in San Antonio is expected to grow by 1.6 million people, with average travel time increasing by 76% in that time, according to Young.

“There are things that can’t be solved just with this event,” Young said. “What San Antonio really needs to think about is what it is the city wants, and that’s why we have a 2040 plan. We talked to people about what they want, what they envision, and not all of that can be solved here [at the codeathon]. But there are a lot of usability things that can be done to make transit easier to use. Certainly, those things can be tackled and some of those things are very solvable through technology and good data.

“So hopefully we’re going to see something really great come out of this. If we don’t, at the end of the day, we’re also supporting technology in San Antonio. There’s a huge, growing tech sector. We really want to be committed growing that here in San Antonio as part of the community.

“VIA is very interested in technology,” Young continued. “We want to use it ourselves and we want to show that we want to use it to make the lives of San Antonians better.”

On Sunday, Young thanked the coders for their marathon of work and ideas, and suggested showers and sleep were in order. For the coder who suggested that he gave up watching the premier of the “Twin Peaks” cult-show revival on Showtime Saturday evening in order to be at the codeathon, one of those may have to wait.

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Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the development beat reporter for the San Antonio Report.