Return to Headlines

BPS Transportation Challenge gathers tech, academic leaders to solve complex school bus issues

School buses  
BOSTON — On Saturday, April 1, local and national computer science experts from across industry and academia gathered at District Hall in Boston’s Seaport District to kick off the first-ever BPS Transportation Challenge, a three-month hackathon-style initiative to generate routing efficiencies within Boston Public Schools’ (BPS) complex transportation system and to explore adjustments to school day start- and end-times.

The challenge, in partnership with the Rappaport Institute, has two components. First, participants will attempt to produce an algorithm which will yield improvements to the routing system; second, they will work on adjusting school bell-time schedules based on routing and feedback from school communities. The submissions from each of the two challenges that are deemed to be the most promising for the school district, from a cost, efficiency, and community engagement perspective, will receive a $15,000 award thanks to generous donations from project partners.

“It’s incredible to see such high-caliber talent from world-class colleges and universities helping to improve the lives of our students in the Boston Public Schools,” said Mayor Martin J. Walsh. “The 2017 BPS Transportation Challenge gives us a unique opportunity to take another look at the complexities within our school bus system to produce results that will positively impact all students.”

The Transportation Challenge will involve a wide range of local and national computer science experts from private industry (Microsoft, Google, FedEx, Uber, ZipCar, various bus routing companies, and others) and premier academic institutions (Harvard, Boston University, MIT, and Northeastern).

“Transportation and school start- and end-times have a major impact on families,” said Boston School Committee Chairperson Michael O’Neill. “It’s important that we recognize the BPS Transportation Challenge as a unique and incredible opportunity to help us make positive changes in a thoughtful and strategic way.”

The examination of school day start- and end-times comes amid a national and local conversation on potentially making high school start times later, and a local discussion to make many elementary school start times earlier. BPS is extending the school day at an additional 39 schools next year to increase academic outcomes and close opportunity and achievement gaps, prompting some elementary schools to dismiss later in the day.

“The 2017 BPS Transportation Challenge perfectly blends together the district’s three core values of equity, coherence, and innovation,” said BPS Superintendent Tommy Chang. “I am thrilled that Boston’s world-leading academic and tech communities are using innovation to help make our transportation system more efficient.”

Boston has the second-most expensive per-pupil school transportation system in the country — the $120 million budgeted for transportation funding in fiscal year 2018 reflects an approximate 7.5% annual increase since 2011.

Currently, the BPS transportation routing process is semi-automated; with much of it still done by hand. Meanwhile, nationally, improving routing efficiencies is an area of trailblazing technological investment and growth. This creates a unique opportunity for BPS to partner with the many academic and industry experts in the Boston area and beyond who are working to find cutting-edge solutions to this computational problem.

During the Transportation Challenge, BPS will reach out to families and school staffs via a survey to develop a better understanding of their preferences and considerations when it comes to school school start and end times.

“Using this challenge to solve a perennial problem is a great example of BPS working with the innovation community to benefit the city’s children and families,” said Rappaport Institute Executive Director Steve Poftak. “We’re excited to work with BPS in convening this important event.”

“We’re thrilled to be hosting this competition,” said BPS Chief of Operations John Hanlon. “We believe that by tapping into Boston’s tremendous innovation network we can truly harness the the tremendous recent technological progress around routing optimization to improve the student experience and free up reinvestment back into schools.”

“If this effort can lead to even small improvements in routing, we believe that it could lead to significant savings that could then be reinvested back into the classroom,” said BPS Chief Financial Officer Eleanor Laurans. “We’re excited that this Challenge will help us act upon one of the most popular ideas presented our Long Term Financial Plan, which was to maximizing efficiencies in transportation.”
Panelists at the BPS Transportation Challenge Kick-Off Event  

Keynote Speakers:
  • Superintendent Tommy Chang, Superintendent of Boston Public Schools
  • Steve Poftak, Executive Director of the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston
  • John Hanlon, Chief of Operations for Boston Public Schools

Discussion panelists:
  • Regina Robinson, Dean of Student Affairs at Cambridge College and Boston School Committee Member
  • Andy Rotherham, co-founder and partner at Bellwether Education Partners
  • Dimitris Bertsimas, Professor of Management, Professor of Operations Research, the Co-Director of the Operations Research Center, and the Director of the Master of Business Analytics at MIT Sloan
  • Jascha Franklin-Hodge, Chief Information Officer, City of Boston
  • Velecia Saunders, Headmaster of the McKinley Schools in Boston, Massachusetts
  • Mike Hughes, Assistant Director, BPS Transportation

Breakout Sessions Leaders
  • Jeremiah Riddle, Analytical Industrial Consultant, SAS 
  • Jonathan Steketee, Director of Transportation for Boston Public Schools
  • Mike Hughes, Assistant Director, BPS Transportation
  • William Eger, Strategic Project Manager for Boston Public Schools
  • James Racanelli, Director of Planning and Analysis, Boston Public Schools