Making the Hills More Walkable

College Hill
College Hill

By Vishva Nalamalapu, Office of the Chancellor

Mitch Footer knows his way around Pullman. But that hasn’t always been true. It took a lot of trial and error.

Now, along with other students and community partners, he is making the process more efficient for other people. They are developing a web app, “Walk the Hills,” that will help people find the best routes for them, and, eventually, help improve those routes for everyone.

It all started with the Center for Civic Engagement, which connects more than 100 courses with community partners. They do so based on which course goals match which community partner goals. In this case, the Center for Civic Engagement connected a computer science capstone taught by Ananth Jillepalli, a computer science assistant professor, with Allison Munch Rotolo, co-chair of the College Hill Association, and now Mayor Francis Benjamin, former co-chair of Pullman 2040.

The computer science capstone students had many projects to choose from, but Footer, J.J. Ibarra, and Adam Wagener were immediately drawn to the “Walk the Hills” project. Footer remembers thinking, “I know what could be useful. Let’s hop on board and see where we can go with this.”

Early on, the students attended a public meeting and a walk audit organized by the College Hill Association to learn how other community members navigate Pullman and what would help them navigate it better. “At the end of the day, the app is for the community, not for any individual,” says Footer.

The students have faced some major challenges along the way — how to fund the app, where to host it, how to securely store the data. “All real-life challenges that do come up,” says Jessica Perone, assistant director of engaged learning at the Center for Civic Engagement. But working through these challenges with each other has only advanced the students’ learning. “The beauty about computer science is there’s so many different ways to tackle these different challenges. It was super cool to see how Adam goes about tackling challenges or how J.J. might approach this certain challenge.”

Directions on the Walk the Hills app

In the end, the students created an app that gives users directions based on their preferences. They can choose the shortest route or the least hilly route, which aren’t always the same in a city known for its hills. And they can provide feedback on the route, including a safety rating and a written review. They can also report hazards that affected the safety rating such as ice or plants growing onto paths or a streetlight that is out. “People do define safety in different ways, so we want to get as many different inputs on safety as we can,” explains Footer.

The user feedback will be valuable insight into how the experience of community members navigating Pullman could be improved. The city, for example, could use the hazard reports to quickly replace streetlights that are out.

The project will continue next year with a new group of students. Footer says that’s common in the industry. “The cool thing about computer science is you’re not actually making anything from scratch, you’re working on something that someone else already worked on,” he says.

The students’ want to leave the app in the best state possible for the next group. Munch-Rotolo says it’s an admirable mission. “We should all be thinking about that ­­— succession, planning, stewardship.”