MODE+ALT+SHIFT: using technology to unlock travel choices

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On 15-17 March 2019, Rose McColl, Ben Daly and Jim Taylor from our innovation lab were part of NZTA’s MODE+ALT+SHIFT hackathon. The 100+ participants in the hackathon were tasked with creating a solution that encourages people living in our cities to make travel choices that reduce the number of single-occupancy cars on our roads. Our team reports back on the weekend.

Getting started, finding a crew

We went into the hackathon with the idea to make a ride share app.

“I’d put some time into thinking around a pitch for an idea to make it easier for people to coordinate and plan workplace car sharing on the premise that people are more likely/willing to share with a co-worker rather than a stranger.” - Jim

The first step in a hackathon is building your team. Jim pitched our idea, attracting Mark Hareb, who had a similar idea, and Fang Gu, who thought our idea was the most practical. At this point we were very “Dev heavy”, having no UX/UI design-oriented people in our group.

We convinced marketer Lisa Clist and database specialist Tikhon Tasenko, who were originally working on an idea they had pitched, to join us.

Aaaand, pivot

Unfortunately, Lisa and Tikhon didn’t love our idea enough. So we sat down and discussed as a team the potential avenues we could explore.

“With most hackathons you’ve got to be prepared to pivot, abandon, rethink, alter your ideas based on the shared ideas and goals of the team as it forms. This is sometimes the most anxious phase of the hackathon for a developer as you’re keen to get stuck in but the most important thing to remember is getting consensus, validating your idea and goals pays in the long run. “ - Jim

With great input from our mentor Rowland Parr and some long deliberation, we landed on an idea by the end of the first night - an impact calculator tool to help people realise the benefits of switching to alternative modes of transport – even if it’s just one day a week. ShiftMe was born…

Day two – go-time

The next morning was go-time for us to start developing this idea, by refining the problem statement, gathering data and developing something to show off the solution scope.

Jim and Ben had the dev covered, with Jim working on the front-end backbone structure and Ben working on the API side working with the Google Maps API to get distances between two locations using various transport options. The rest of the group started ideating towards the solution scope, and gathering user data to support the problem statement and solution we landed on.

“My favourite part was working through the technical solution with Jim. Figuring out what different avenues we could take, the solution architecture, what API’s to use and what data to get from them and then tying it all together into one well-functioning application that did what we promised it would do was a really great experience.” – Ben

Ben and Jim busy hacking

Gathering evidence

Rose, Mark and Tikhon set out into the streets of Auckland to gather some survey data on travel habits. We wanted to understand what people thought about their commuting options and, if they were drivers, what it would take for them to switch to alternate transport modes. We found, as expected, that people were mainly motivated by time and cost. But we also found that many people believed that driving was cheaper than public transport. This was a key finding. We wanted to show that demonstrating the hidden costs of driving, such as car maintenance and depreciation, and conversely the benefits of alternate modes of transport, might just be enough to get people to reconsider their options.

From the data we gathered, as well as data collected from NZTA and other available research, we were able to piece together a lot of useful information around travel, including things like how many trees you would have to plant to offset your carbon emissions, and how many calories the average person burns when they’re cycling (and how many pizzas that translates to!). Encouraging people into not just public transport, but active transport modes like walking and cycling was a big part of what we wanted to achieve, because we all spend way too much time sitting in our cars.

 

The big pitch

A huge part of any hackathon is being able to sell your idea to the judges and the audience. Sometimes it doesn't even matter if your solution isn’t yet in a functional state; if you can convince people that it's a useful and feasible idea then you can do well. Luckily for us, by the time we had to present our idea, we not only had the data, a launch plan, and a professional looking slide stack, but thanks to Jim and Ben’s skills we also had a real functioning application to show off.  Lisa was our presenter and she did a stellar job, along with a smooth technical demo from Jim.

Presentation time at NZTA Hackathon

 

 

Decision time

The wait for the judges' decision after all the teams had presented their amazing work was nerve wracking, but we were kept entertained by the NZTA staff and mentors, we even got a Barbie Girl lip sync battle and an interpretive song and dance show while we waited!

When the judges finally called out the winners, it was such a cool surprise to come in third. We had been quietly confident, but it was hard to call because all the teams had come up with such great ideas.

third place

The winners, team Giga-whaaat produced a super cool AR app and personal transport assistant chat bot to help you plan your travel and find your way to your bus stop. Very impressive that they built a working demo in such a short time, and a great idea to give people the confidence to switch transport modes!

Reflections

Jim, Rose and Ben

Ben (on the right above)

I was both nervous and confident at first, we had a good idea going into it but as with anything you have never done before, there’s going to be some nerves.

I met and worked with some great people and I learnt a great deal about development in general, some of the dos and don’ts, and was able to work together to produce something that I was very proud of. This hackathon blew away my expectations and I thoroughly enjoyed my time.

Jim (on the left above)

I loved the idea behind this hackathon, opening up the opportunity for everyone to solve the shared problem of too much congestion and shifting people into better modes of transport.  When I arrived at the hackathon I was pleased to see such a diverse group of people all coming together and giving up their weekend to make things better.

Plugging in my commute was interesting – I do use the train to get into work but I was interested to see how my journey to the station mounted up in terms of my carbon footprint, perhaps it’s time to switch mode?

Rose (in the middle above) 

There was a real sense of teamwork and encouragement and it was lovely to be part of that especially in the face of the heart-breaking events in Christchurch.

It was a huge learning experience. I loved the creative process, and our team dynamics were great. It’s always cool when you're thrown into a high-pressure situation with people you don't know, yet you still manage to come up with something awesome!

Postscript

The weekend showed what can happen when all people work together for the collective good, and the team have decided to donate their share of the prize money to the Christchurch Shooting Victim’s Fund.