Traffic congestion is one of those city problems that everyone complains about, but few feel that they can do anything to change. But this past weekend, dozens of people worked through the day and night at [D]Congestant, a hackathon aimed at coming up with tech-based solutions for alleviating traffic congestion in Canada’s biggest city.
The hackathon was the brainchild of Ted Graham, the innovation lead at PwC. He said he was inspired to work on the hackathon after struggling to simply cross the street due to bumper-to-bumper traffic by his office close to the Air Canada Centre amidst a Raptors game, Comic Con, and the Blue Jays’ playoff hunt.
“People were honking at me for even trying to cross. And I was like, this is affecting my happiness and productivity. I thought, what if we could tackle this as a community?”
For the past year, Graham has been working with innovation leaders in the South Core Innovation Hub — a collaborative group including Uber Canada, PwC, and Cisco, which Graham also founded — to think about how to engage the community in creating solutions for congestion.
— Lucas Cohen (@LucasCohen12) April 1, 2016
By Sunday, the final 15 teams pitched before a crowded room and judges that comprised of experts from backgrounds including Metrolinx, the City of Toronto, and venture capital. In the end, the top prize — which included $5,000, a chance to work with Cisco, PwC, and the mayor’s office, five round-trip Porter flights, five Centre for Social Innovation memberships, and $100 in Uber credits — went to Hover, which included Max Shuxin Wei, Max Howarth, Kevin Zhu, and Malik Ismail.
Calling themselves the “match.com of ridesharing”, the team identified that the biggest friction to adopting ridesharing was the awkwardness of riding with strangers. The Hover app allows drivers and passengers to select their music preferences, cite their background such as their education, and even car temperature preference in order to get matched with like-minded individuals.
“People were honking at me for even trying to cross. I thought, what if we could tackle this as a community?”
“I’ve been thinking the past few weeks about what made me uncomfortable with ridesharing back in university and why I wouldn’t take a bus or ask for a ride instead,” said Howarth. “We did some research particularly about Metrolinx SmartCommute, and looked at what users liked and didn’t like, and it lined up with being uncomfortable riding in a car with strangers for three hours.”
The team said that they look forward to speaking more with the judges to find out more about how to make the platform useful.
“The app is very scalable in terms of its content, because this isn’t a problem that just faces Toronto. In any metropolitan centre there’s always traffic and congestion,” said Ismail. “The goal is to come up with really scalable solution, starting with Toronto.”
Graham said that hackathons of today need to go beyond creating a short-lived solutions that don’t solve problems for people outside of tech-savvy circles. “The modern hackathon isn’t just coding anymore, it’s about understanding public policy and human behaviour,” Graham said. “When I started talking to people entering, it’s not all students by any means, there’s a 45-year-old national bobsled team member. He’s a team manager by day, but he cares about getting home to see his kids.”
While it may be the end of the hackathon, Graham said that the work the teams have done will continue on past the weekend — the organizers have said that winning teams will get the chance to work with the City of Toronto’s mayoral office to possibly deploy their solutions, and even Uber and Metrolinx has expressed interest in working with all teams, not just the winning ones. “I’m really looking forward to being able to cross the street,” Graham said.
Photo courtesy Dasha Pasiy