Newly Minted Coders Tackle State Tourism Data
Some Hawaii's newest full-stack software developers have unveiled a new website designed to take a mountain of government data and turn it into a visual, browsable, useful resource for Hawaii's largest and most vital industry. HiViz makes it easy to explore visitor market data that's currently published only in spreadsheet form by the Hawaii Tourism Authority.
The online tool, which is only the first draft of something that could quickly evolve, lets anyone see how many visitors arrive in the state over time, and drill down into how much they spend on things like entertainment, food, and shopping. The real-world application was created as part of an assignment for students enrolled in the most recent class of the DevLeague coding bootcamp.
"DevLeague was such a great experience and surpassed my expectations of what I was planning on learning after three months," said Bryan Butteling, who led the four-coder team that built HiViz. "It's been something I've wanted to do for the last year and the main reason why I joined DevLeague."
Butteling was previously the lead organizer of Startup Weekend Honolulu and was a long time supporter and advocate in Honolulu's entrepreneurial and innovation community. Recognizing the high demand for software development talent in Hawaii, he signed up for DevLeague and even raised over $6,000 from friends and supporters to offset the tuition via crowdfunding.
Butteling was paired with Alexander Anich for one of the coding bootcamp projects. Anich had previously worked at a mobile game company on market research and design. And for HiViz, the final course project, they partnered with fellow DevLeague students Brock Lanoza and Bryan Alexander. The four adopted the team name "The Data Dudes."
"We poured lot of time into it," Anich tells me. "I was also very pleased to have completed a project that felt useful, with the chance to make a local impact, instead of some silly food app or game."
Like many civic hacking and open data projects, HiViz enlists talented developers and modern software tools and applies them to the sometimes daunting and seemingly impenetrable monolith of government. Governments love PDFs and spreadsheets, but most regular people do not.
"When I was in the visitor industry, I was aware that the state provided visitor data but they did so with confusing excel sheets, long formatted reports and inconsistencies," Butteling said. "While I had the patience to go through these documents, I made the assumption that most visitor professionals didn't."
And as he started to work with businesses that relied on tourist dollars, he became frustrated with how little information was available, and how little that information was used.
"I knew that there is information out there that people could use to make better sound decisions based on the traffic coming into the state -- not just tourist but what type of tourist," Butteling recalled. "I couldn't believe that with Hawaii being so dependent on the visitor market that there was no call to action to improve market data or even how that information is being delivered in an impactful way."
While the substantial money spent on marketing Hawaii to the world is important, he said, there is plenty of room to help local businesses reach the people who heed the call to come to our shores.
"If we could provide all business owners with impactful and real time data to improve their business, wouldn't that allow them more time on enhancing their own products?" he asked. "Something as simple as seeing trends in year-over-year data, or visually seeing correlation in data if you were to change some variables."
Butelling took these questions and ideas into DevLeague, and shared them with Anich and his classmates.
With his own background in gaming, Anich admitted that his first instinct was to do something in that space for the final project.
"I initially thought about making a game server, but Bryan approached me with the Visitor Market data he found on the HTA website," he recalled. "Even in its excel format, I thought it was very interesting -- so much raw data about such an important industry in Hawaii that was largely being unused."
The first challenge was how to crack open the spreadsheets posted by the HTA, and organize the information in a way that a website or app could interact with it.
"We had two end goals: an easy to understand visualization of the data, and making the data easier to access for developers," Anich said. "As junior developers, architecting the application was a fairly rough difficult proccess for us -- for the first three days, we didn't even touch code, all we did was talk and scrum and whiteboard."
And then came the arduous work of extracting the data.
"We spent a large amount of time scrubbing the Excel sheets to make a workable JSON that we could use," he said.
Once they had a database, the team started to brainstorm different ways to present the information.
"Initially, we had planned on making a choropleth map of the islands (which is a color heat map)," Anich recalled. "But we had some consultation from Ben Trevino, who has a lot of experience with this particular material, and he said it usually ends up being boring, because its obvious which islands get the most traffic and the page becomes static."
"We pivoted and tried to focus on the numbers and the graphical representation of the numbers, which turned out much more meaningful and apparent," he said.
Anich also credits the teachers at Dev League, who pushed the team through some of the blocks they encountered to get to their MVP, or "minimum viable product."
"Now we're here, and the map is great, but it could be much, much better," he said.
Ready for Takeoff
HiVis is an interactive and informative presentation of visitor market data, but both Butelling and Anich acknowledge that it can only show historical data for now.
"The data only includes years 2007-2014, but the HTA updates their excel sheets with daily numbers," Anich explains. "If we had the right formatting on the data, it could give us the extra step to bring in live data feeds directly to the visualizations."
"Imagine having a visual map of who was coming to Hawaii right now," he added. "Its powerful."
And since HiVis was dreamed up and built in a classroom, it needs to be tested in the marketplace.
"The next step for this product is to first see if this is something that people even want or would find useful," Butteling said. But with the MVP built, the team is already mulling their next enhancements.
"In the event that this does pick up momentum, then our next step would be to setup averages for each origin, which should build the foundation towards forecasting, which will then get us to the end goal of -- fingers crossed -- working with the state to produce real time data based on daily inventory," Butelling explained.
And support from the HTA, which compiles and provides the data, is definitely needed for HiVis to reach its full potential. Burt Lum, a friend and fellow open data and civic hacking advocate, knows very well what's possible when governments are open to collaborating with the community.
"I like the fact that [this DevLeague team[ did a great job scrubbing the data to create the visualization and an API for others to use," he said. "I think it is a partial win, just to demonstrate what is possible."
"The next step is to to get HTA to be a partner in this effort... to encourage HTA to make the data more regularly updated," Lum said.
"Bryan and I have plans on continuing the project at least as a side project -- and our two team members are also interested, but have some immediate obligations to attend to first," Anich said. "If we get investors interested, it could turn into something truly amazing... else it will be a solid portfolio piece to show on our resumes."
Butelling added: "The goal has always been to make the lives of local business owners easier by providing them with as many tools to make sound decisions. But to get there we need to work together as one -- state and private -- to be honest with our areas of inefficiencies and provide solutions that have long term impacts."
"If none of this happens, still at the end of the day, we had a blast building this product," he adds.
Check out HiViz at HiViz.io. You can also follow Butteling on Twitter at @braddahboots, and learn more about DevLeague at DevLeague.com.