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Trip Tracking via Smartphone: A Cool Way to Engage High School Students

FALL 2011 — In 2008 Assistant Professor Joan Walker stood in the East Room of the White House where President George W. Bush presented her with the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE). The award is the highest bestowed by the U.S. government upon scientists and engineers in the early stages of their research careers.

The PECASE honor grew out of an earlier award she received from the National Science Foundation, which provides recipients with a five-year research grant based on a proposal that lays out a foundation for a lifetime of research. In Walker’s case, that translates into utilizing behavioral research and modeling methods to predict how people will use infrastructure systems.
Simply put, every day people decide how to get from one place to another—to work, the mall, school and by bus, car, train, bike, etc. Through behavioral research and modeling, Walker tries to determine how people make those decisions in order to more effectively design future transportation systems.
But the NSF award that led Walker to the White House also came with a condition: recipients are asked to use some of their knowledge, skills, and time to inspire younger students to consider careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
Which explains the connection between what took place in the East Room of the White House three years ago and what happened this past July in room 544 of Davis Hall.
For three weeks, 24 high school students from cities around the country learned computer science and analytical skills within a larger project devoted to collecting travel data via smartphones.
"Kids spend lots and lots of time on their phones. Why not teach them programming in a way that is very much a part of their life?"
Although Walker’s award triggered the intensive summer session, it quickly mushroomed into a collaborative effort. Two of Walker's students, Emily Ehlers and Tracey Stallard, discovered the Leadership Education and Development (LEAD) organization, which brings students to college campuses for intensive three-week courses in science, technology, engineering and math. It seemed a likely partner for Walker's Career Award.
Raja Sengupta, an associate professor in the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department involved in various aspects of smartphone and transportation use research, stepped in to help design the program, as did former ITS students, current PhD students, and a group of undergraduates. 
“Joan had an interesting problem to solve,” he explained. “I teach programming, and am interested in the area of data visualization. I thought to myself, kids spend lots and lots of time on their phones. Why not teach them programming in a way that is very much a part of their life?”
The students, all under-represented minorities, were chosen by LEAD for their interest in the sciences and their strong academic records. Hugo Ramirez runs the summer program at Cal, and he was the link between the engineering faculty and the visiting students.
In previous years students in the program followed a more traditional engineering curriculum; last year it involved learning how to build wind turbines. But Google, an industry sponsor of this year’s program, wanted more computer programming built into the three-week course.
Walker’s joint research with Sengupta offered a perfect opportunity. An important part of their investigations are aimed at replacing a very old technology for acquiring travel data—pen and paper travel diaries—with one of the newest, the smartphone.

Visualizing the future

For decades, planners, who are required to forecast models of urban areas 20 years into the future, have relied on data obtained by asking people to jot down in a diary everywhere they go and why and by what mode of transportation over a two-day period.
“These data sets are so expensive that they’re collected only every decade or so,” explains Walker. “Yet all the cities in the U.S. and in most cities in the developed world depend on these data sets for forecasting what the urban environment is going to look like two decades later.”

Because infrastructure is so expensive and has to last for years, planners need to understand the impact of building a road or choosing land use patterns or changing pricing or building transit, she explained.
“You really have to be able to know how things will change everything about the urban fabric.”
Smartphones, she said, will transform her field of research. Instead of asking people to complete questionnaires or keep diaries that are expensive for the analyst and difficult for the respondent, “we can just track people innocuously over a longer period of time and get information about their travel behavior that is better and more complete.” 
In their current research, she and Sengupta are using smartphones to track people and infer mode choice. Eventually they will be able to infer activity—whether you are working or shopping or jogging, for example.
And privacy concerns? Walker says she won’t track anyone who doesn’t want to be tracked. “Participants will be fully aware that they are being tracked when we’re collecting this information,” she added. Some of the research is aimed at providing a 'behavioral nudge.'
Some of the research Walker and Sengupta are engaged in is aimed at providing what she calls a ‘behavioral nudge.’
“We want to use smartphones to basically have a technical conversation with people about their travel patterns and try to help them travel more sustainably,” she said. “The feedback they get—whether it’s how much CO2 they’re emitting or how many calories they’re burning—it’s all about making people more aware of how they’re getting from one place to another.”
Walker and Sengupta are currently running an experiment where volunteers are tracked for five days, after which they log on to a website to find out where they’ve traveled, how they’ve traveled, and how they rate in terms of time, health, and the environment. “Then we show them how their ratings compare to other people’s,” she added. 
In the end, she hopes feedback via the smartphone can help people make changes about how they travel.

Trip Tracking 101

Given the direction of this research, Walker and Sengupta built a curriculum for the LEAD students around collecting smartphone data that would allow them to track themselves, plot their movements on a Google map, and see whether their travel behavior changed, once more information was available to them.
“Due to the age of these students, we thought we’d let them study themselves, and at the same time learn something about scientific method,” Walker explained.
A group of former and current graduate students set out to teach smart 10th and 11th graders how to build a website and track trips in 20 days.
Brendan Nee, who graduated in 2007 with a master’s in transportation engineering, and two PhD students of Sengupta’s, Jerry Jariyasunant and Daniel Vizzini, took on the primary teaching duties. Five undergrads, Chris Morales, Michael Nole, Stasa Zivojnovic, Claudia Rangel, and Miguel Rodriguez lived in the dorms with the students, accompanied them on field trips, and helped them with homework. Nole said he and the other undergrads were in charge of “simulating the experience of college living, interacting with the students on both academic and personal levels.”
Only a few of the students had any programming experience. Nee, whose company, Blinktag builds websites for cities, non-profits, and transit agencies, began by teaching front-end website development using Google maps and Twitter data. The students began following Nee via his tweets and marking his progress around the Bay Area through the day on their maps. "Today they're learning trip tracking," he explained. "They're pulling data down and putting it on the map."
“You have the latitude and longitude of each tweet, so add the marker code,” he told one group huddled over their computers.
“These kids are using very new technologies—stuff that is just a few months old,” he explained. “They’re writing code directly to the browser.” At the very least, at the end of three weeks they will have a good grounding in a marketable skill: web development.

Experiencing Berkeley

For the high school students it was not only a chance to learn a new skill, but visit a large public university, as well as the headquarters of LEAD sponsor Google, where they made presentations at the end of the course.
They were drawn to the program for many reasons. Armando Yanaz of Houston, Texas said his mother had learned about LEAD by talking to his high school college advisor, and he was looking for a program that allowed him to travel to another state.
Isabella Coleman of Chicago said she wanted to “check out” UC Berkeley, and Drew Turner of Atlanta was looking for a new experience, one that would let him meet people from all over the country.
While the students started out learning to track Nee and Vizzini, they eventually learned how to track themselves.
“We hoped they would continue to use the smartphones for a few weeks when they returned home to track their trips and perhaps make them more aware of the ways they get from place to place," said Walker.
The team plans to repeat the program next summer, integrating it even more tightly with Walker's and Sengupta's research.
"We all learned a lot in three weeks," said Walker. 

 group photo/Stasa Zivojnovic