Using computer science, a Mac alum has made pedaling around the Twin Cities that much easier

As Reid Priedhorsky ’01 learned by navigating the Twin Cities on two wheels, printed maps will only take a cyclist so far. They’re often outdated as soon as they’re published and rarely tell a route’s full story. As he found himself deeply engaged with a local paper map, Priedhorsky began mulling over the limitations of paper maps—and whether a web-based solution was out there.

That idea became reality when Priedhorsky, a computer science major at Macalester, joined a social computing research team at the University of Minnesota as part of his PhD work there. With Priedhorsky as founding project leader, plans snowballed until eight people were tackling the problem, funded by National Science Foundation grants.

“Innovative research requires creative thinking and cross-disciplinary connections.”

Their solution is a geowiki called Cyclopath. A wiki, Priedhorsky explains, inverts the traditional publishing model: instead of reviewing and then publishing a project, it is first published and then reviewed by its users. A geowiki applies that concept to maps. At Cyclopath’s website, an online search generates a route between two points that users can review based on road type, slope, and user rating. Cyclists can add notes about routes, thus constantly improving the thoroughness of the route review. Users can also create routes that eliminate or prioritize such variables as pavement quality, traffic levels, and seasonal maintenance, by sorting with tags for each variable.

Priedhorsky’s brainchild now has more than 3,000 users, thanks to the Twin Cities’ vibrant cycling scene. (The area is regularly named among the top for cycling, thanks to a large network of bikeways and a passionate community of cyclists.) That energy, Priedhorsky says, drives Cyclopath’s momentum and has allowed the University of Minnesota team to publish strong research papers with its findings.

“In the Twin Cities, [the need for something like Cyclopath] is almost a no-brainer, because the bicycling community here is so knowledgeable and hungry to share what they know,” Priedhorsky said.

Priedhorsky, who left the project in 2010, is now a post-doctoral researcher at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, studying Twitter data to improve infectious disease models. A liberal arts education, he says, has helped him use his computer science skills to address local and global challenges.

“A liberal arts education is great preparation for graduate school in social computing,” he says. “Innovative research requires creative thinking and cross-disciplinary connections, so the broad education one builds somewhere like Macalester is a real asset.”

March 20 2012

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