My day at the Toronto Transit Camp

I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit that yesterday’s Toronto Transit Camp was my first BarCamp-themed event. I’ve been to a couple DemoCamps, but never to a BarCamp. I’m horrible at gauging attendance, so when a pre-event registration of 80 people was announced, I was somehow envisioning a smaller gathering. Based on my DemoCamp experience, I was expecting the room to be full of “Web 2.0” bigots spewing buzzwords. I’m glad to see that wasn’t entirely the case, and that plenty of artists, designers and transit users were out in force.

The great thing about the Transit Camp was its openness. When the call for sessions came up, I encouraged my girlfriend, who wasn’t entirely certain how she could contribute, to draw on her strengths and introduce a PR-related topic. She did, but unfortunately her idea of TTC-endorsed parties inside stations along the subway line was superseded by the Newmindspace subway party presentation which was unannounced at the time, so only two people showed up.

I attended a session on opening up the TTC data, which centred around creating an API for third-party developers. That was one of my pie-in-the sky suggestions for a new TTC website, so I thought it would be interesting. It was, but much of the discussion involved creating a trip-planner based on data available on the website. Offshoots of that grand scheme, such as creating an interface for determining the time until a bus appears at a specific stop (an idea I’ve thought of but haven’t touched), were discussed as well.

One of the problems with bringing in people from the community is that those who don’t have a background in computer science often don’t realise how complicated certain programming tasks are. Transit route planning involves calculating the shortest path with minimum delay between two nodes and is NP-complete, meaning that no polynomial-time solution exists and that, even with intelligent search algorithms, massive amounts of processing power is required for an imperfect but reasonably fast solution. Even Google is unable to create a perfect solution to this problem, as anyone who has made frequent use of Google Maps to get directions can attest, and they can only return a timely result because they have vast amounts of computing power available. Factor in bus schedules as a third-dimension, and the problem becomes quite cumbersome. The TTC, with its more than 350 routes and over 12000 stops, is the third-largest public transit system in North America. It’s commendable that individuals want to attack this problem, but automated trip planning and scheduling is best left to those with doctorates and massive amounts of computing power.

In the afternoon I attended Joe Clark’s eye-opening “Why TTC Signage is Fucked” presentation. As my girlfriend will attest, I am often bothered and frustrated by inappropriate signage and directions, so this talk affirmed a lot of my own thoughts and made me realise just how bad and widespread the problem is. Sadly, it seems as though the solution to bad signage, apart from massive lobbying, is a lawsuit brought about by death or injury, at least until the TTC becomes more enlightened.

Next up were the design slams. I joined one of the slams on redesigning the TTC’s homepage. While not a task that an hour or so can solve, it was nevertheless an interesting exercise. My main interest was multilingual support. Language drop-downs and language selection pages are not the answer as far as I’m concerned. With which language do you present the drop-down or link? I’m also unconvinced of the reliability of using the Accept-Language header sent by the browser. I feel that a properly-encoded display of the top languages covering upwards of 95% of Toronto’s population and its visitors is a better solution, but one that is also fraught with problems.

As I mentioned before the camp, my intent was to connect with people, and connect I did. I managed to meet and speak with Adam Giambrone, Joey deVilla, Jay Goldman, Joe Clark, Bob Brent and David Pritchard, among others. Having not been to this kind of gathering since the release of my transit map, it was a little strange to be instantly recognised by name. I was introduced as both “the guy who did the Google Toronto Transit Map” and “the guy who remixed the website suggestion spreadsheet“, although I think the most flattering comment came when the team who created a concept for a new bus shelter described a map on their embedded LCD as “a Crazed Monkey type map.”

All in all, the Toronto Transit Camp was a success for me and no doubt a success for the community as a whole. Did it live up to the hype? Only time will tell whether it will have any lasting impact. Representatives from the TTC were present, so hopefully the ideas presented there will stick in their minds and be recalled when it comes to policy change.

  1. Jay Goldman

    February 6, 2007 at 10:40 pm

    Ian -

    Thanks for the great write up! We’re really glad you made it out to the event as your opinions and input are invaluable to this community. I hope you continue to be engaged!

    - Jay

  2. Mark Kuznicki

    February 12, 2007 at 8:35 am

    Ian, glad you came out! And please don’t think that TorCamp is all a bunch of web 2.0 bigots, although I understand how you might get that impression. I blogged about the diversity and openness of the community as it relates to the DemoCamp event format here. TorCamp is People, DemoCamp is a specific event format.

    I encourage you and the other passionate Transit Campers to continue the conversation via the blogs and the Google Group,

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