After the Fern Hollow Bridge collapse, do you wonder what other bridges in Pittsburgh might be in terrible shape? Rainy Sinclair built an app for it.
The local senior software engineer set out to map all deteriorating bridges in the Pittsburgh area for drivers, cyclists and pedestrians. The application, called bad bridges, allows users to enter the start point and destination of any route in Pittsburgh, and map the number of bridges crossed on that route. Below the map, it lists each bridge’s condition, year built, most recent inspection date, next upcoming inspection date, length, and custodian, if any.
People of Pittsburgh! Have you recently started wondering how many structurally flawed bridges you cross on a regular basis? Well I did something that can tell you: https://t.co/nbD9JKi67R
—Rainy Sinclair (@ohheyitsrainy) February 22, 2022
The app development process was pretty straightforward, Sinclair said. Technically by Twitter.
“I used Glitch.com, which is a free site that makes it super easy to build web apps that do just about anything you want,” they wrote. “I used Glitch because I don’t have a lot of front-end development experience, so most of my website ideas get stuck in the ‘where to start?’ phase. With Glitch, I I was able to do it all in a web browser and have something working in just a few minutes, I can even make changes to it on my phone if I want to!
Sinclair isn’t alone in using technology to try to solve Pittsburgh’s (and the United States’) infrastructure crisis. It was a hot topic during of President Joe Biden visit Hazel Green last month and is the basis of a new initiative by the Y Combinator and Technical.ly RealLIST start Mach9 Robotics. But Sinclair’s app is unique from these other efforts in that it provides Pittsburgh residents with a solution right now by giving them access to a citizen-built platform.
It’s also a great example of the power that open data can have. Sinclair entered data from a list of all bridges in Pennsylvania provided by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT). From there, they filtered the list of bridges located in Allegheny County and analyzed other filters provided by the database documentation.
For mapping functions, Sinclair used Google APIs to provide route determination and address autofill. Because of this though, he can make occasional mistakes.
“It grabs directions from Google, then checks along the route to see which bridges it crosses (or is close to crossing) based on latitude/longitude,” Sinclair wrote. “It’s not perfect; downtown gets especially tricky because there are SO many bridges so close together, so it does its best to guess which ones you are on, but may not be 100% accurate.”
Since the app launched last week, it has gained traction on Twitter, with other local technologists offering recommendations for various improvements. Sinclair said they took some of those suggestions to tweak the app, but overall they didn’t spend too much time improving it, as it’s a side project to their full-time job at an Internet infrastructure company.
This isn’t the first citizen tech project Sinclair has pursued. They have developed platforms for mushroom identification, Arduino-driven LED lighting setups, programming for escape rooms and more. But the Bad Bridges app is the first time they’ve used civic data for a tech project. Why the change?
“My main motivation was to be able to relate the issue of our infrastructure erosion to my personal life in a way that feels a little more meaningful and helpful,” Sinclair said. “I think mining PennDOT data in this way really helps personalize the problem and can help people understand the potential impact that bridge safety has on their daily lives.”
Sophie Burkholder is a 2021-2022 corps member of Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by Heinz endowments. -30-