Arlington, VA

(Updated at 4 p.m.) In just seven weeks, engineering whizzes at Bishop O’Connell High School developed an app that NASA may draw from as it gears up to land the first American woman and next man on the Moon, in preparation for missions to Mars.

This week, NASA recognized them as one of top 10 teams in the 2020 NASA App Development Challenge, which occurred last fall. Students crunched lunar terrain data to create an app that visualizes the South Pole region of the Moon, and NASA will be using aspects of the 10 winning apps for its own program to help astronauts communicate on and navigate the Moon’s surface.

As members of a winning team, DJO students Alex Janninck ’22, Daniel Kippenhan ’22, Elaine Ly ’21 and Claire Toia ’23, as well as Sevginaz Gurleyici ’23, from the Madeira School in McLean will be able to participate in a NASA leadership event in February.

“It takes confidence, drive and a lot of perseverance,” Bishop O’Connell STEM teacher and team advisor Melissa Pore said. “This was incredible to see them achieve this.”

Students developed the app virtually, using “Code With Me” — the Google Docs of collaborative coding — and talked via Discord, a growing communications platform that is popular among gamers and teens. At the height of the challenge, Ly recalls taking notes in class with her right hand and coding with her left.

A NASA official said during a live-stream announcement that the students “displayed great team work by maximizing each team’s strengths in completing both the coding and non-coding aspects of the challenge.”

The odds were stacked against the students: The team barely met the minimum size to participate and the school went fully virtual (due to a COVID-19 outbreak) near the tail-end of the challenge. Team members also did not have app experience, and only Janninck and Ly could code proficiently — so they mentored other members in the coding language Python, Pore said.

“What adult groups would have persevered when they had to learn a new code and train others?” she said.

NASA wants to use this technology “right now,” said Pore, adding that the app can visualize any planet and is suitable for color-blind people.

“Good for NASA to use our smartest levels of students to figure out tricks they wouldn’t have thought of,” she said. “You taught the adults some lessons.”

Ly, who wrote about the news for the school, said she “wouldn’t be half as interested in engineering if it weren’t for [Pore].”

Always learning, Pore became a licensed amateur radio operator to build satellites with her students, and is working with the International Space Station so her students can learn about and access opportunities in aerospace engineering.

A senior headed to George Washington University, Ly nominated Janninck to take charge next year.

“He’s a really good leader and programmer,” she said.

As soon as Janninck finds another interesting challenge, he is willing to try it.

“We do need to get rest from coding and working really hard,” he said.

Especially since the next challenge could be a 24-hour competition to develop a floating settlement to flee to if a meteor strikes Earth.

“No sleep — it sounds wonderful,” Janninck said.

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Morning Notes

B-52 Flyover Attracts Attention — A B-52 Stratofortress flew low and loud over Arlington Thursday morning, likely as part of an Arlington National Cemetery funeral, turning plenty of heads. [Twitter, Twitter]

Va. Coronavirus App Gets Positive Reviews — “I often use this column to warn about the dangers of apps that track you. This time, I’m going to recommend you actually install one. There’s a new kind of app that uses your smartphone’s Bluetooth wireless signals to figure out when you’ve been in contact with someone who has tested positive for the novel coronavirus… It’s called Covidwise, and works in the state of Virginia.” [Washington Post]

Pedestrian Committee Chair Slams County — “‘The response that we got back from the County Manager’s Office and senior County leadership was that pedestrians are not a priority,’ said Eric Goldstein, Chair of Arlington County’s Pedestrian Advisory Committee (PAC), during the group’s first virtual meeting last week.” [Street Justice]

New W&OD Trail Detour Monday — “Upcoming construction activity for the new W&OD Trail Bridge over Lee Highway (Route 29) in Arlington will require a trail detour for about two weeks beginning Monday, August 24.” [Press Release]

ACPD Food Drive Deemed Success — The Arlington County Police Department’s “Fill the Cruiser” food drive collected just over 6,500 pounds of food last week. [Arlington Connection]

D.C. Area Leads in Tech Leasing — “Among the 10 markets reporting the most tech leasing volume in Q2, the year-over-year change in tech leasing activity ranged from +71% (Atlanta) to -74% (San Francisco Bay Area). Washington, D.C., and San Diego were the only other markets with volume increases, while Manhattan also had a large decrease. The five markets with the most leasing volume in Q2 were Washington, D.C., San Francisco Bay Area, Atlanta, Manhattan and Dallas/Ft. Worth.” [CBRE via Potomac Tech Wire]

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Morning Notes

Va. Rolls Out Contact Tracing App — “Governor Ralph Northam today announced the launch of COVIDWISE, an innovative exposure notification app that will alert users if they have been in close contact with an individual who has tested positive for COVID-19.” [Commonwealth of Virginia, DCist]

Rosslyn Metro Closes During Rush Hour — The Rosslyn Metro station closed during yesterday’s evening rush hour, reportedly for a COVID-related cleaning. In what may be a sign of just how low ridership remains, ARLnow did not receive a single tweet or email tip about the closure of one of the system’s busiest stations. [Twitter]

Amazon Still Planning on Pen Place Purchase — “It will be some time before the public knows what Amazon.com Inc. has in store for Pentagon City’s Pen Place property, but we have a pretty good idea of how much it’ll cost the e-commerce and cloud computing giant to acquire what will become the second phase of HQ2. Amazon is expected to buy the 10-acre plot from JBG Smith Properties for just under $150 million sometime next year.” [Washington Business Journal]

Local Hotel Gets Financial Lifeline — “Berkadia announced today the $19 million refinancing secured for Hilton Garden Inn, Crystal City… The global COVID-19 pandemic has particularly affected the hospitality industry, leaving many owners struggling to secure the financing they need.” [Press Release]

Matchbox Files for Bankruptcy — Local restaurant chain Matchbox, which has a location in Pentagon City, has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization. “Despite the bankruptcy, Matchbox says it’s in talks with its landlords to keep the restaurants open and will even look to open more locations in the future, albeit with smaller footprints.” [Washington Business Journal]

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Editor’s Note: Sponsored by Monday Properties and written by ARLnow.com, Startup Monday is a weekly column that profiles Arlington-based startups and their founders, plus other local technology happenings. The Ground Floor, Monday’s office space for young companies in Rosslyn, is now open. The Metro-accessible space features a 5,000-square-foot common area that includes a kitchen, lounge area, collaborative meeting spaces, and a stage for formal presentations.

Rosslyn-based Airside Mobile, a travel app developer founded a decade ago by a pair of former TSA employees, is making national headlines thanks to a bit of timely research.

With the busy holiday travel season getting underway, Airside Mobile released a study, using data from Customs and Border Protection, ranking Thanksgiving passenger wait times for international arrivals at the 25 busiest international airports in the U.S.

The study is on-brand for Airside Mobile and its flagship Mobile Passport app, which “speeds you through U.S. Customs and Border Protection at 30+ airports and cruise ports.” Here’s what company said about the study:

It’s well established that Thanksgiving is one of the busiest air travel periods of the year. Each year, there is lots of commentary around the domestic travel volume, but little attention is given to the international travel volume which also experiences a spike around Thanksgiving. Upon arriving to the U.S. from international destinations, all passengers must pass through U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s clearance process. A passenger’s wait time for this clearance process is highly variable and driven by factors including volume of arriving passengers, number of open CBP processing booths, citizenship status, and the use of Global Entry or Mobile Passport Control. Using CBP’s Airport Wait Time tool, we analyzed 12 days of Thanksgiving 2018’s travel window (11/16/18 – 11/27/18) to predict the busiest days and times of Thanksgiving 2019’s travel window (11/22/19 – 12/2/18) at 25 of the highest volume airports.

Phoenix Sky Harbor, San Jose (Calif.), Baltimore-Washington, Charlotte Douglas and Philadelphia international airports ranked No. 1-5 respectively, while Newark, Miami and San Francisco were at the bottom of the list.

Washington Dulles ranked No. 6, with an average wait for U.S. citizens of 4 minutes. No. 3-ranked Baltimore-Washington International (BWI) reported an average wait of 3 minutes.

So far the wait time study has been reported by CNBC (“Flying this Thanksgiving? Here’s how long you’ll wait at immigration and security”) and USA Today (“Thanksgiving travel: Airports with the shortest and longest customs lines”).

“We’re seeing a small trend during the Thanksgiving window, with a lot of folks taking advantage of the long weekend to go abroad,” Patrick Merfert, Airside’s vice president of marketing, is quoted as saying by CNBC. “We wanted to see what it was going to look like when they arrived back home.”

“You tend to see a lot of smaller airports performing quite well, which is partially due to lower traffic, but you also see some larger airports punching above their weight,” Merfert also said, per the financial news network’s article. “Washington Dulles is ranking quite well despite having moderately high traffic.”

Crunching data and producing interesting infographics or rankings, then pitching the results to journalists, is a well-established way for companies to try to earn free media coverage. While many rankings never go beyond a press release, Airside Mobile was able to capitalize on public interest in holiday travel to pick up coverage from major outlets.

It’s not the only PR win for the company. CNBC also reported in August that Mobile Passport “makes clearing US airport immigration and customs a breeze,” following the release of the company’s premium service, dubbed Mobile Passport plus.

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Morning Notes

VHC to Take More Trauma Patients — “Virginia Hospital Center is preparing to become a trauma center. The Arlington hospital, now amid a major campus expansion, is taking steps to secure Level 2 trauma designation — meaning it could handle more serious cases like head injuries and complex fractures with a devoted response team, led by an in-house general surgeon.” [Washington Business Journal]

APS May Be Rethinking School Swap — “As the potentially contentious redistricting of elementary-school boundaries begins to take shape, Arlington school leaders may be tiptoeing away just slightly from somewhat radical suggestions they offered just weeks ago.” [InsideNova]

AWLA Rescues Kitten Near Pentagon –“We received a call about a car parked near the Pentagon, with a note under the windshield stating that there was a kitten up inside the engine. Using a mix of patience and really yummy cat food, our officers were able to safely remove the kitten and bring her back to the shelter.” [Facebook]

Arlington-Made App Highlighted by Apple — “In honor of Veterans Day, Arlington, Virginia-based Sandboxx, creator of a platform that keeps military families connected, is being featured in Apple’s app store as its App of the Day.” [Technically DC]

Arlington Co. Makes Best-for-Vets List — Ballston-based contractor CACI is on a new list of the Best Companies for Veterans. [Tysons Reporter, Monster]

Sullivan Selected as Caucus Chair — “Virginia Democrats on Saturday chose Eileen Filler-Corn to become speaker of the House of Delegates, a pick that managed to be both historic and conventional for a party that flipped both chambers of the General Assembly in elections Tuesday… Del. Charniele L. Herring (Alexandria) will be the new majority leader, becoming the first woman and the first African American to serve in that post. Del. Richard C. ‘Rip’ Sullivan Jr… will be caucus chairman.” [Washington Post, Blue Virginia]

First Flakes Today? — Some light “conversational” snow may fall today as a cold front passes through. Meanwhile, NBC 4’s Doug Kammerer expects this winter to be colder and snowier than usual. [Capital Weather Gang, NBC 4]

New Korean Chicken Eatery Near Fairlington — “Korean chicken restaurant Choong Man Chicken is coming to… Shoppes at Summit Centre (4700 King Street).” [ALXnow]

Flickr pool photo by Erinn Shirley

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Sponsored by Monday Properties and written by ARLnow.com, Startup Monday is a weekly column that profiles Arlington-based startups and their founders, plus other local technology happenings. The Ground Floor, Monday’s office space for young companies in Rosslyn, is now open. The Metro-accessible space features a 5,000-square-foot common area that includes a kitchen, lounge area, collaborative meeting spaces, and a stage for formal presentations.

Excella, a Courthouse-based technology firm, has been selected as the lead partner in an effort to put together an app to detect alcohol misuse and risk of relapse.

The app, called Beacon, is designed to help medical professionals assess whether a patient is suffering from alcohol use disorder through a “combination of behavioral economics and advanced technology,” according to a press release. The product is still in development, but the goal is to be more effective than traditional methods of detecting alcohol abuse.

The company will utilize the work of Virginia Tech software development students at its Extension Center in Blacksburg. The company will also partner with Roanoke-based BEAM Diagnostics, Inc. to develop the app.

“The nation’s substance use epidemic presents massive challenges to every facet of our society, and we are committed to helping BEAM make the world better through tech innovation,” said Margaret Archer, Excella’s Director of University Programs. “Beacon is exactly the type of solution that our mentor-and-student development teams love to build, and we are happy to be a part of the solution.”

This isn’t Excella’s first foray into apps for a public good: the company previously developed MySpot, which helps homeless youth find nearby shelters and assistance. The press release also notes that the company has worked with government agencies for years to combat opioid fraud and abuse.

Image via Excella/Facebook

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Local governments officials are hoping a new  trip planning app with cash rewards will incentivize more environmentally-friendly commutes.

The app, called incenTrip, uses real-time data to plot quick routes, and uses artificial intelligence to customize those routes for an individual over time. Regional officials said they’re hopeful the app’s built-in reward system will encourage more commuters to help reduce traffic and carbon emissions by ditching their cars.

“The end goal is to provide the most cost effective tool for our agencies, our community and our employees, to incentivize behavioral changes,” said Dr. Lei Zhang, who was in charge of creating the app as director of the University of Maryland’s Transportation Institute.

A pilot version of incepTrip first hit the app stores last year after being by developed by Commuter Connections, a Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments initiative, and the Transportation Institute.

The app features a reward system that gives users “points” when they choose a transportation mode that reduces carbon emissions — like the bus or biking — and gives $10 cash awards once users accumulate at least 1,000 points. At 2,000 points users can receive a check for $25, and at 3,500 points they can receive $50.

The incentives are funded through state and federal transportation departments.

VDOT transportation planner Heidi Mitter said the department “has a big emphasis on multi-modal transportation” that pairs with the app’s mission.

“Arlington is dense and has a lot options,” Mitter said of transit in the county, telling ARLnow that hopefully that meant this app would benefit the county’s residents and commuters. 

The app could also help Arlington’s employers, many of which have workers commuting in from other jurisdictions, said Nicholas Ramfos, Director of MWCOG’s Transportation Operations Programs.

“Particularly for employers if they’re having parking issues or other types of recruitment retention issues this is a great way to offer these travel options tho those employees and help reduce some of the congestion that coming into that area,” he said.

When asked, Ramfos added he “absolutely” believed the app could help ease the expected increase in traffic from Amazon’s HQ2, which has started the hiring process for the 25,000 jobs the company promised the county.

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(Updated at 5:30 p.m.) Arlington’s Red Top Cab has joined the taxi booking app Riide in an effort to win customers that might otherwise be wooed by the usability of Uber and Lyft.

The app, available on Apple, Android, and Microsoft phones, seems to work similarly to Uber and Lyft ride booking apps. Passengers can see exactly how far nearby drivers are, within 10 seconds of the cab’s latest location, and are given an estimated fare for trips.

The number of Red Top drivers has gone down by one-third since 2015, according to Kyle Summers, Red Top Cab’s new president. Prior to the disruption caused by the ride booking apps, Red Top had a seemingly never-ending supply of interested drivers said Summers, who joined Red Top Cab this month after leaving Irish transportation software company iCabbi.

“Uber and Lyft, they’ve done great things for the industry,” he said. “They’ve made it so that taxicab companies have to act better. The taxicab companies did this to themselves, to be honest… For us, we need to be able to provide the right tools to get drivers to want to drive for us and for customers to want to use us.”

Both Summers and Von Pelot, the local cab company’s sales and marketing director for the past 26 years, said they hope that the new app would be an improvement over the older, dedicated Red Top app and would help them better compete with Uber and Lyft.

One area where Red Top still has a disadvantage, according to the executives, is in existing regulations that apply to cabs but not to ride hailing companies. While Uber and Lyft drivers can sign up and drive sometimes within 24 hours, Red Top Cab drivers have to sometimes wait three months to begin driving, while undergoing training, background checks and other regulatory hurdles.

The regulatory challenge is something that Summers hopes to tackle to persuade drivers to work for the company.

Riide, which started in the United Kingdom and is expanding to parts of the U.S., aims to allow users to book taxi rides from local companies without needing to change apps.

Pelot said that he believed that the app would be a great benefit for riders because of the “broader base of affiliations” that Red Top can use to fulfill customer’s needs. He used the example of an Arlington rider traveling to Manassas and being able to use the app to schedule both the trip there and back.

The company’s current Red Top Cab app will be discontinued as operations shift to Riide.

Note: An earlier version of the article stated that the number of Red Top drivers had gone down by two-thirds since 2015.

Red Top Cab’s executive misspoke during an interview when asked how many drivers they had lost since 2015. The company has lost one-third since 2015, and have retained two-thirds of their drivers, not vice-versa.

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Startup Monday header

Sponsored by Monday Properties and written by ARLnow.com, Startup Monday is a weekly column that profiles Arlington-based startups and their founders, plus other local technology happenings. The Ground Floor, Monday’s office space for young companies in Rosslyn, is now open. The Metro-accessible space features a 5,000-square-foot common area that includes a kitchen, lounge area, collaborative meeting spaces, and a stage for formal presentations.

Todd Moore spends three to five hours a day listening to podcasts.

“I’ve never really been happy with the existing podcast apps,” he said.

That’s where the idea for Playapod, a cross-platform syncing podcast app, came in. The app, created by Moore through the Crystal City-based TMSOFT, best known for its white noise app, is compatible with all Android and iOS devices and is available to download from the Google Play Store, Apple App Store and the Amazon App store. The app launched last week.

One podcast-playing problem that bothered Moore was the inability to sync podcasts across different devices from different platforms. Another issue was the difficulty of relocating where someone left off listening to a podcast.

“Something that frustrates me with all audio playback app, like even Amazon’s audio books, they never show you what you’ve listened to,” he said.

That made it easy to lose place in a podcast if, for example, the user accidentally touch the wrong button. On Playapod, users can see exactly where they left off if they lose their place through the precision progress bar. Users can also bookmark the most-recently played portion of a podcast for future playback, said Moore.

Playapod is free and has no advertisements. Another feature includes the ability to download podcasts so users can listen offline.

“I think the interface of Playapod is very simple, and it’s intuitive and it’s easy to navigate,” Moore said. “So I think it’s going to be a real hit based on the initial feedback I’m seeing.”

Playapod may have some big shoes to fill against its competitors at Apple and Amazon, but Moore said he’s not concerned.

“I think if people try Playapod, they’re going to see a better feature set. I think they’re going to enjoy this type of listening experience, and I’ve spent a year on this, so I’m a little biased,” he said.

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Morning Notes

Residents Irked at App-Directed Traffic — Residents who live just west of Crystal City are upset that map apps like Waze keep directing cut-through traffic down S. Fern Street as an alternative to S. Eads Street or Route 1. A resident who spoke at Saturday’s County Board meeting said her complaints to Arlington County staff have not resulted in any action. [InsideNova]

Army Ten-Miler to Close Roads Next Month — A number of roads around Crystal City and Pentagon City will close on Sunday, Oct. 8 for the annual Army Ten-Miler race. [Arlington County]

Lions Club Scrambling to Find Xmas Tree Lot — The South Arlington Lions Club is not even sure they’ll be able to hold their annual Christmas tree sale in South Arlington this year. The club’s usual location in the parking lot of the former Food Star is under construction and the club just learned that county land is off-limits to nonprofit fundraising. [InsideNova]

Colorado Has Its Own Serial Pooper — A bizarre situation that’s drawing comparisons to Arlington’s own serial pooper of 2016 is playing out in Colorado. Residents in Colorado Springs say a female jogger has been repeatedly, unapologetically defecating in their neighborhood. [Deadspin, Washington Post]

Nauck Leaders Lauded — A pair of community stalwarts were honored by the Nauck Civic Association in a ceremony this past weekend. “Wanda Pierce was lauded for her tenure leading the Arlington Community Foundation,” while “Cleveland ‘Bubby’ James Jr., another longtime resident, was honored for his work with the youth and young adults of Nauck and the entire county.” [InsideNova]

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