Category: Interactive Journalism

Adding panoramas to Google Maps

Who doesn’t like shooting a panorama? It’s one of the most fun features of smartphone cameras these days. But because the gigantic and strangely-shaped images they produce don’t work natively on Facebook or Flickr, I think most of them are destined to sit forever in obscurity on smartphones.

That is, unless Google has something to say about it. I just found out that you can post your panoramas to Google Maps, where future visitors to a location can see what things look like. Here’s my view of Old Rag in Madison County, Virginia from this past Friday:

Still some wonkiness in between sections of the photographs, but it’s a pretty sweet way to host a panorama on a third-party site that you can share with family and friends.

D.C. Hobbyists Navigate Uncertain Skies Of Drone Flight

"We've got guys like Christopher who come volunteer their time and they are very, very good,

“We’ve got guys like Christopher who come volunteer their time and they are very, very good,” said Curt Westergard, in praise of Christopher Vo, right, the group’s Director of Education.

RESTON, Va. — On a workshop table at Nova Labs in suburban Virginia, a custom-built drone lies on its side, emitting a shrill beeping sound. A series of wires connect the machine — which looks like a model helicopter on steroids — to a laptop, over which two young men lean in with looks of concentration.

At another workbench, two others are playing with a tiny toy drone that fits snugly in the palm of a hand as they try to guide it gently down on a tabletop without crashing.

In the next room, Mark Ettinger sits at attention as he threads screws into the skeleton of a six-armed drone. It’s a hexacopter, or “hex” in the parlance of drone hobbyists, and will eventually be able to carry a payload hundreds of meters in the air.

While the collection of hardware looks like something one might have seen in a ‘90s science fiction movie, it’s actually a typical scene for the members of the D.C. Area Drone User Group. Composed of everyone from hobbyists to engineers to serious students of robotics, the group is pushing the boundaries — both technologically and socially — in a rapidly growing field.

Now, a year and a half after its inception, the group has over 900 members and it’s still growing. The group holds several workshops, fly-ins, and meetings every month.

Mark Ettinger works on his drone, which is still in its early stages.

Mark Ettinger works on his drone, which is still in its early stages.

Collaboration on the bleeding edge

The medley of specialties represented within the group means that each member sees the potential for the technology differently.

The entrepreneur Ettinger, for instance, comes from a farming family and wants to explore the way drones can be used to make agriculture more efficient — what he calls “precision agriculture.”

“Rather than just dumping water or fertilizer over the entire field, the idea is to use sensors to help target spots that need help, as well as to aid the detection of pests and disease,” Ettinger said.

But without a working knowledge of how to assemble a drone, Ettinger didn’t know where to start. And that’s how he wound up in the workshop for one of the D.C. Area Drone User Group’s monthly build parties.

“I wouldn’t have any idea how to do this stuff — I’m a software guy, not a hardware guy,” Ettinger said. “But I met these guys and they gave me the confidence that I could do it.”

The creation of a collaborative environment is precisely what prompted Timothy Reuter, the group’s president, to form the group.

“I thought maybe if I create my own community, I can recruit people who can teach me to do this properly,” he said. “I thought maybe I could get 30 people if I’m lucky — it seemed like such a niche thing.”

Like Ettinger, Reuter has aspirations of making a business in this burgeoning industry. He is a co-founder of AirDroids, a San Diego-based company that is designing and manufacturing The Pocket Drone — a small collapsible tricopter intended for use in aerial photography.. Their Kickstarter campaign recently raised over $900,000, well beyond their modest $35,000 goal.

“It’s a technology that I’m really passionate about that I really think is going to change the world, and it’s fun to be part of it,” Reuter said.

Not every drone is intimidating. The ProtoX weighs just 11.5 grams.

Not every drone is intimidating. The ProtoX weighs just 11.5 grams.

Shifting regulatory playing field

Whether or not drones will actually change the world will depend, at least in the United States, on the Federal Aviation Administration.

In 2012, Congress directed the FAA to create rules that would safely integrate drones into the U.S. airspace by 2015. Until then, officials say that the commercial use of drones is prohibited.

That means high-profile commercial ideas like

Error! You must specify an anchor parameter if you are not using the auto_thumb option.

— where the online retailer Amazon would use semi-autonomous drones to deliver packages to customers’ doorsteps — are on hold until the FAA gives the go-ahead.

The exception to that rule are drones that are operated “solely for hobby or recreational reasons.” In that case, operators are subject to rules issued in 1981 governing model aircraft, which merely require that drones are flown away from populated areas, below 400 feet and at least three miles from airports.

So if you use a drone to take pictures at a friend’s wedding, that is allowed under the existing regulatory framework. But if you try and sell those photos, that is against the law, at least according to the FAA.

It’s a cause for incredulity for drone entrepreneurs like Reuter.

“Somehow it’s safer for me to sell a pocket drone to some 17-year-old who has never flown before than it is for me to sell it to a professional photographer who’s going to do this all-day every day,” Reuter said.

But that may be changing. On March 7, National Transportation Safety Board Judge Patrick Geraghty dismissed a $10,000 fine the FAA issued against aerial photographer Raphael Pirker for flying a small fixed-wing drone over the University of Virginia and then selling the footage to the university.

In the ruling, Geraghty said there was “no enforceable FAA rule” specifically prohibiting commercial drone enterprises.

The FAA has signaled their intention to appeal the ruling, which would stay the decision in the Pirker case. More broadly, the federal agency has also updated the “Busting Myths” section of their website, reiterating the commercial ban even in the face of their loss in court.

An already murky legal situation for aspiring drone entrepreneurs has only gotten murkier.

Technology for and by the community

The best uses for drones are not always commercial. One way the group has managed to grow their skills while playing by the rules has been to cultivate a culture that is heavily-focused on community service.

John Waugh has worked in conservation for more than 30 years. He heads a sub-group of the main organization which identifies protected areas in the Washington region and around the world that have particular problems that drone experts are uniquely equipped to address.

“I like to say that we’re trying to be more than just boys with toys,” Waugh said.

Last year, members of the group collaborated to produce a video that showcased the trails in Banshee Reeks Nature Preserve in Loudoun County.

Waugh said drones could also be used to identify sources of pollution in the Shenandoah River or infestations of certain kinds of invasive plant species in protected areas. With near-infrared sensors, they can be used as tools to help search and rescue missions. They can also empower communities to gather important data about their neighborhoods without the need for government help.

And those are just possible uses with optical sensors. With a little creativity, Waugh said, you can imagine all sorts use cases for dones.

“A favorite application of mine would be collecting insects in an air column. What insects exist at what elevations over a forest canopy?” Waugh said. “This is just me goofing around, but there might be compelling reasons to know this stuff.”

And at a time when education in the STEM fields has become a matter of national concern, drones can be a remarkable tool for recruiting kids into science and engineering, Waugh said.

“We want to convey the message that this is not dangerous stuff that will invade privacy or compromise their security,” Waugh said. “Good can come out of it.”

And that good, ultimately, may be the best advertisement for both the technology and this D.C.-area group that has built up around it.

“It’s not the fact that drones exist that is going to be revolutionary,” said Reuter. “It’s the degree to which they empower people to do new things or to do things that used to be available only to people with lots of resources that is going to make them a big deal.”

As for what those new things will be, nobody can say just yet. You’ll have to keep your eyes on the skies.

A Timeline of Drones

Putting the Community in Community Theater

Light spills into the room and onto the dusty carpet through four frosted panes of glass set in a door across from the stage. Except for a couple banks of lights, now switched off, and a few tables, the room is empty.

In the middle of the room, Calvert Whitehurst — you can call him Cal — paces out the rough outline of his character’s stage direction for an upcoming production called Next Fall. It’s a love story about two men, one of whom is confined to a hospital bed.

“There will be people sitting right there,” he says, pointing to the ground. “And I have to pretend that they’re not there and that there’s a sort of bank of medical devices.”

Cal is a member of Port City Playhouse, a small, all-volunteer community theater that operates out of a mixed-use space in the Church at Convergence in suburban Alexandria, Va.

“It’s not like we can go out and rent a bunch of hospital monitoring equipment,” he says. “So people have to say, ‘Oh, I see what he’s doing. He’s checking out the little TV screen that has the numbers on it, and he at least can hear the beep-beep-beep of the echocardiogram.’”

Cal has served on the Port City board, with a few interruptions, for about 11 years, and he shows no signs of stopping. When he’s not on stage in a production himself, he’s climbing ladders or helping work a light board.

“You can always find actors, always find directors, you can usually find a good sound and light person, but rarely do you find the people to volunteer,” he says.

And volunteers are the lifeblood of any community theater, says Cal. Stages need repainting, lights need to be moved, someone has to help actors with costume changes. And because they put on shows in a shared space, everything needs to be cleaned up afterward. It requires a certain level of commitment that, now 64 years old, Cal only rediscovered later in life.

“Instead of buying a Maserati or taking a mistress, I decided that my midlife crisis would be: ‘I really enjoyed theater when I took it in college, why don’t I take that up again?’”

His first experience as a lead actor was with Port City in 2001, in a production of Because He Can, the story of a couple whose lives were ruined by a computer hacker. He played the part of the husband, a respectable businessman.

It was an experience that still resonates with him, not just because it was his first lead, but because it was the first time he was reviewed by a local writer for The Washington Post.

“I came winkling down stairs like a little child on Christmas morning to read the paper where [the reviewer] had said about my performance: ‘Loud, blunt, amateurish over-acting,’” says Cal. “I thought, ‘Well, that’s kind of harsh!’”

That characterization of his early acting is still a sore spot for Cal — as is evident from the readiness with which he can recall the stinging words — but it’s a sentiment which Cal’s friends and colleagues readily rebuke.

Robert Epstein, with whom Cal studied acting for about three years, speaks glowingly about Cal’s “finesse” as an actor and his unflinchingly positive outlook on life.

“Cal was one of my favorite students, who always approached the class with his great sense of humor, including his sly wit, and a real sense of professional perfection,” Epstein says.

Mary Ayala-Bush, who has both acted alongside Cal as well as directed him in a recent production of Six Degrees of Separation, echoed that sentiment.

“He is not unlike the senior statesman of the ensemble and brings a fun but genteel manner to the productions he is a part of,” she says.

Being a part of this mutually-supporting community of artists is as much of a draw as the prospect of being on stage. It can make even theater’s most droll work something worth doing.

“At first, volunteering is an obligation, but then it becomes a pleasure after a while, because you know these people, and really come to enjoy them,” he says.

Ambling slowly towards the door, Cal pauses to look back at the stage as he digs in his pockets for his gloves and then winds his scarf around his neck.

He says he sometimes worries that a smaller and smaller percentage of the population shares his enthusiasm for the arts. There’s a sense that with so much competition in terms of entertainment, with all the screens occupying peoples’ attention, that theater productions — and the communities they sustain — are being left behind.

He continues to look at the stage in a pose of quiet contemplation, before his face lights up again and he turns toward the door.

“Well, if nothing else, community theater will always be in 3D!”

Cicadas Help Usher In New Era Of Data Journalism

A cicada emerges from it's 17-year slumber. Photo credit:

A cicada emerges from it’s 17-year slumber. Photo credit:

In the summer of 2013, cicadas in the billions emerged from the ground after 17 years of slumber. The natural cycles that begot the teeming hordes of loud, clumsy insects are as predictable as the moon and the tides, as were many of the stories written by mainstream news outlets covering it.

But in a field that included puff pieces like recipes for cicada tacos, one project stood out from the crowd — the Cicada Tracker from WNYC.

The brainchild of WNYC’s four-person data news team, the project called on the station’s listenership to become amateur scientists. Using either store-bought or homemade sensors, citizens were called on to go out into their back yards, check the soil temperature, and enter their results on the station’s website. The goal was to use the data to predict the emergence of Brood X.

John Keefe, the editor of the data news team, says the idea was born of a brainstorming session on how to cover such a predictable event.

“We were trying to figure out what we could do for the cicadas,” Keefe says. “We found out that you can actually predict, pretty much to do the day, when cicadas have actually emerged if you know the ground temperature just eight inches underground.”

Keefe says he knew it was possible to build a temperature sensor that would do the job, but wasn’t familiar with the specifics. At a hackathon just a week later, he pitched the idea to a couple of programmers, and they jumped on the idea.

They devised a cheap detector that readers could construct for themselves in about two hours from parts readily available at the local Radio Shack. From there, it was a simple matter of building a MapBox map to display the data, put out a call to the station listenership, and the Cicada Tracker was born.

Engagement bonanza

From the start, it’s clear that Cicada Tracker doesn’t tell as interesting and harrowing a tale as the New York Times’ Snowfall (though they did inspire some on-air stories on entomology by the Radiolab team), nor is its public impact likely to garner many awards.

The one thing the project has that so many others are deficient in is reader engagement. In total, more than 1,500 people offered up temperature data on the emergence of the cicadas, along with 2,000 reports on sightings. Where many interactive projects measure their success in bounce rates or time on site, readers were so engaged in the Cicada Tracker that they bought or built temperature sensors, went outside, dug in the dirt, and filed their data.

It’s a remarkably clever way to harness the public’s’ latent interest in an insect swarm and turn that into a sense of ownership in a web project and the station brand. Keefe attributes the success in this respect to the unique nature of the public radio audience.

“We have a pretty engaged audience in public radio, and we have to be; we live off of that,” Keefe says. “If you’re not engaged enough to open your wallet a couple of times a year, then we don’t exist. So we really believe in a higher level of engagement.”

Of course, crowdsourcing has existed for some time, but when a project like this assumes the mantle of predictive accuracy for an almost universally interesting event and can be cited every time a cicada story makes it to air, it acquires a durability that justifies the effort that went into the project.

A photo of the one of the finished homemade detectors. Photo courtesy WNYC.

The next wave of data journalism?

But while the impact of the Cicada Tracker for readers is specific to that one story, journalists have taken heed because it signals that we may have entered a new era of data journalism informed by cheap, readily available sensors. Why rely on data from the government or interest groups when newsrooms can simply acquire their own?

The Cicada Tracker generated so much useful data that Keefe says the team actually reached out to the University of Connecticut Ecology & Evolutionary Biology department, who were trying to collect similar data on the emergence of Brood X. They were able to actually channel some of this cicada data into real scientific research.

Keefe says this kind of partnership is possible because of recent changes in the market for sensors.

“The price of the hardware has come down a lot, and the software is manageable for novices,” Keefe says. “And so then the question becomes: ‘What stories are going to emerge to be told?’”

The possibilities are endless, and of particular public interest, especially in areas of the world where there are gaping holes in government data or serious questions about its legitimacy. Keefe says he can foresee projects were newsrooms monitor pollution levels in local rivers or the location of radiation plumes near the Fukushima plant in Japan.

There are limitations as well, which Keefe acknowledges, particularly when the public is doing the data collection.

“There are common issues with sensor projects from data collection to data accuracy, to the accuracy of the devices,” Keefe says. “There’s a whole issue with even getting them out to people or having them make them themselves.”

Room for improvement

By all accounts the project was a success, but there are areas where the presentation could have been improved.

Integration with station coverage of the cicadas is incomplete, at best. For all the work that went into devising the sensors, creating the map and tracking the project, the most visibility it got was as a “recommended link” in a story. Why not an embed?

To add to that, the map itself is almost useless now that cicada season is in the past. Some way to display a time lapse of the cicada emergence would do a lot to improve the shelf life of the project, as well as lend motion to a page that is almost totally static.

A great emphasis on lowering the hardware barriers of entry for readers may have helped generate more responses as well. Many people don’t have $80 and two hours to build a complex detector, where they could have been pushing the far simpler $8 device.

In all, however, it’s hard to knock the Cicada Tracker. With a minimum of investment, WNYC harnessed the power of data to become the go-to location for information on an event of almost universal interest. They also set the stage for a new era in data journalism, supported by cheap, easily distributed sensors. That qualifies as a success by any measure.

Are You Getting The Most For Your Money From Capital Bikeshare?

Photo by DDOT DC:

Photo by DDOT DC:

Capital Bikeshare has managed to weave itself into the fabric of the nation’s capital in the three short years of its existence. With more than 250,000 rides a month, Washingtonians have embraced the concept of a bike share.

But is Capital Bikeshare really worth the money for its riders — whether they’re commuters or casual users? At what point does buying a bicycle or renting a bike from a more traditional business make more sense?

Regular riders find value

The vast majority of those you see riding around town on those big, red, iconic bikes are every-day riders. In a single month of data taken from May of this year, those with monthly or yearly passes to the Capital Bikeshare accounted for an impressive 193,218 individual rides, accounting for 75 percent of all rides within the system.

“A lot of people in my office in Crystal City use the Bikeshare to get to work,” says Pamela Gingham, standing next to the Bikeshare dock in Pentagon City. “It doesn’t make sense to drive when it’s that close.”

What’s striking about regular users is how focused their rides are. In one month, the average trip by a monthly or yearly Bikeshare subscriber was just 12.22 minutes, well below the 30 minute threshold at which hourly rates start to kick in.

“The distance is really the key — one half to three miles is the sweet spot,” says Chris Eatough with Capital Bikeshare. “Shorter than that, and walking works just fine. Longer than that, and the bikes are not as comfortable and efficient.”

The value proposition for commuters is obvious. For $250, the cost of purchasing an entry-level used bicycle, a Capital Bikeshare member could get nearly four years of service, minus all the hassles of maintenance.

“Many [members] are bike riders already and have their own bike,” says Eatough. “But they appreciate the different type of transit that bikeshare provides, such as allowing for spontaneous trips, combining with other modes, one-way trips, not worrying about locking up your own bike, etc.”

Trickier proposition for casuals, tourists

If Capital Bikeshare regulars are focused riders, then their casual counterparts — those who use 24-hour or 3-day passes — are decidedly less so.

The average ride by a casual user is more than three times as long as a subscriber, at 41 minutes. As many as 5 percent of these casual users ride for two hours or more, incurring costs of anywhere between $29 and $94 per person, depending how close to the daily limit they stray.

More traditional bike rental services, such as Bike and Roll near Union Station, offer much better value propositions for tourists. For $14, a visitor to the Nation’s Capital can get a light 24-speed Trek hybrid for two hours — a far more comfortable ride than than Capital Bikeshare’s lumbering three-speeds.

But while there is plenty of evidence that tourists are using the Capital Bikeshare in this way, that’s not how the system was designed to work.

“Some people think that bikeshare is a system set up for visiting tourists, but it’s not really true,” Eatough says. “Only about 10 percent of trips are by casual users from out of town. Of course, we are happy to serve the these users, and it’s good everyone if these trips are made by bike instead of taxi, car rental tour bus, etc., but they are not a huge part of the ridership.”

Going from part-time to full-time

Perhaps Bikeshare’s most enduring legacy may be its ability to awaken the inner cyclist inside every Washingtonian.

Lawrence Behery, owner of the Old Bike Shop in Arlington, says the he routinely gets customers into his store who used Bikeshare as a gateway to the hobby.

“They find out that [cycling] is a wonderful thing for them, and they don’t have to be a bicycle racer in order to get to work every day,” Behery says.

Using Bikeshare is still cheaper by all accounts, but purchasing a bike ultimately has the advantages of comfort and fit.

“You can tailor what you expect out of a bike,” Behery says. “Some folks don’t have a car at all and they need a utility bicycle that has racks and fenders and the ability to climb hills under load. And depending on how long their commute is, maybe a three-speed bicycle isn’t the best choice.”

Capital Bikeshare does not have any research on the number of Bikeshare riders who leave the service to use their own bicycle, but they say its something they hear from area bike shops.

Whether riders use Capital Bikeshare in the ways intended by officials or just to ride aimlessly around town, Eatough says what is important is that people are out there pedaling.

“All of these profiles are fine with us,” Eatough says. “We just want to provide options for getting around in other ways than single occupancy vehicle.”

Streetcars in D.C.

D.C. Street Cars: Can They Work Again? from Chris Chester on Vimeo.

The District Department of Transportation says the first of many planned streetcar lines will be operational by the beginning of 2014, leaving many residents waiting with baited breath.

The H Street line to Benning Road will be the first line to run. City planners have as many as five lines planned — running a total of 37 miles across the District

The new cars, constructed in the Czech Republic, are a far cry from the streetcars that prowled city streets a century ago or more. The system was originally powered by horses shortly after the Civil War, and later converted to electricity, until it was ultimately shut down in 1962 in favor of a more road and sprawl-intensive form of urban planning.

As the city evolves, however, and the tide has swung back towards providing dense, affordable living and car-free transit, the streetcars are poised to undergo a renaissance of sorts. With few exceptions, District residents are enthusiastically awaiting the city’s second coming as a streetcar town.

Waiting To Inhale: D.C. Marijuana Program Sees Delays

WASHINGTON, DC, 4 May 2013 — D.C. voters first approved legislation legalizing medical marijuana in 2010. The city’s first licensed dispensary is poised to open in a few weeks, but the wait has been difficult for patients who have been waiting on the sidelines.

Lenley Wadley, a resident of the Petworth neighborhood, has suffered from symptoms of multiple sclerosis since 1982, when he was just 17 years old. His condition causes pain in his joints, and largely confines him to a wheelchair.

“It sort of affects my nerves, so even though sometimes it doesn’t look like anything, you see me walking and I look OK, my nerves are frayed and frayed and frayed,” Wadley says.

Wadley says marijuana helps numb the pain from his multiple sclerosis like nothing else he’s tried. The problem is, the dispensaries still aren’t selling to him or any other patients.

Multiple sclerosis is one of just four qualifying conditions for medical marijuana in the District, which has one of the most stringent laws in the country. Other qualifying conditions include HIV/AIDS, cancer and glaucoma.

Dispensaries waiting on a signal

Capital City Care was the first medical marijuana dispensary to be granted a license. It’s also expected to be the first to dispense marijuana to patients.

With exposed brick on the wall and lightly-colored hardwood floors, the dispensary resembles the waiting room in an upscale doctor’s office. Step outside its doors, and you can see the Capitol Dome straight down North Capitol Street.

As the only medical marijuana operation in the District to obtain both a cultivation and dispensary license, Communications Director Scott Morgan says they plan to carry between four to eight different strains of cannabis to cater to different patient needs.

“You have to keep in mind that the medical benefits really do depend on the strain and on the person,” Morgan says. “The strain that works best on Patient A might not work well on Patient B, even if they have the same condition.”

Morgan says they have marijuana harvested and ready to sell, but final approvals for customers have not yet made it through the Department of Health.

The process established in the District is, in Morgan’s words, “patient-driven.” Would-be patients must request that their doctors approve the use of marijuana as treatment. Doctors then must request forms from the Department of Health.

Only once those are returned and processed can a patient can be given a card and be allowed access to the dispensary.

The system has proved slower to get going than many had imagined. Registration forms are still making their way out to doctors’ offices, and there is a considerable amount of confusion about who is responsible for taking the next steps.

Delays frustrate those who have been waiting

For people like Wadley, the problems go beyond just getting the right forms from the city government. Getting a referral from a physician isn’t a simple matter of making a few calls — it’s a process that can take months. The number of doctors who will accept Medicaid is small, and often have long waiting lists.

Medical marijuana is also neither free or even subsidized for those on government aid.

“It’s going to end up being similar to the prices that you see marijuana sold for in other marijuana states across the country,” Morgan says. “So probably in the neighborhood of $100 to $120 per quarter ounce.”

For those on a fixed income like Wadley, that can represent a serious financial commitment, and it speaks to the seriousness with which they approach their treatment.

“The bureaucracy involved with all this is crazy,” Wadley says. “It’s like I’m the scourge of the Earth. All I want to do is relax.”

Morgan expects their doors will be open to patients like Wadley some time in May.

For now, all they can do is wait.

Visual Storytelling Assignment 2

Pedro And Vinny's Keeps Them Smiling

Picture 1 of 6

WASHINGTON, D.C., 4 April 2013 -- It may not look like much, but at the Pedro & Vinny's burrito stand on the corner of 15th Street and K St NW, proprietor John Rider has become famous for delivering high-quality burritos to the exact specifications of his loyal clientele. His regulars reward his attention to detail with continued loyalty.

WASHINGTON, DC, 4 April 2013 — Every weekday on the corner of 15th and K Streets in downtown Washington, D.C., a line of eager office workers waits for their latest calorie bomb courtesy of Pedro and Vinny’s. Come rain or shine, owner John Rider, 55, dishes up his famously delicious burritos from the confines of his iconic sidewalk cart.

And his customers can’t get enough.

“His sauces are great, he’s a fun guy, and he knows about the Washington Capitals, which is very important,” says Michael Bennett, 42, a Pedro and Vinny’s regular. “There’s a million different reasons to come here, but look, the bottom line is that the food is delicious.”

Regular customers are easy to spot, because they have answers readily at hand when Rider peppers them with questions.

“What kind of tortilla? Do you want cheese? Black or pinto beans? Guacamole?”

Each of Rider’s creations is unique, particularly when it comes to the application of hot sauce, for which he has a special verve and flair.

“How hot do you want it on a scale of 1 to 10?” Rider asks. “Cilantro? Yeaaaah, you want cilantro. Better take the rest of the afternoon off, because this is a masterpiece. It’s going to put you into a coma.”

A sidewalk man in a food truck world

Rider has operated a food cart since 1997 and has occupied the same patch of sidewalk near Farragut Square since 2002. And his following has only increased with time.

His continued success has been made all the more conspicuous by the recent boom in food trucks in the D.C. area. Even on a frigid Thursday in April, there are more than 40 food trucks operating within a ten-block radius, but Rider isn’t concerned.

“They rely on their novelty factor, but if they have to stay in the same area all month, they lose that,” Rider says. “People can come here every day, three times a day and not get tired of it.”

But while Pedro and Vinny’s has proved resilient, his brick and mortar neighbors have not.

“That Pizza Authentica over there? Their rent is more than $14,000 a month — I called and checked,” Rider says. “They can’t compete with these guys with that kind of overhead.”

The squeeze put on traditional restaurants by these culinary upstarts has prompted the D.C. government to take action. New regulations proposed by the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs would limit the number of food trucks allowed in coveted patches of the city. Spots in those areas would be apportioned by a monthly lottery, and those who don’t win the lottery will have to stay 500 feet or farther from those zones.

“The proposed regulations have one outcome – less choice and competition for District resident’s dollars and fewer food trucks just where residents want them the most,” says Doug Povich, head of the Metropolitan Washington Food Truck Association

As a sidewalk vendor, Rider doesn’t fall under the same rules and restrictions as his more mobile brethren, but he says he sympathizes with both sides.

“I hope it doesn’t happen because I think the food trucks are good, but they’re hurting the restaurants,” Rider says.

Expansion in the future for Pedro and Vinny’s

If there was a time for Pedro and Vinny’s to expand into a full-fledged food truck, it has long since passed, Rider says. He’s more interested in seeing how his food fares in a more traditional setting.

Two years ago, he stumbled upon a small restaurant serving Bolivian food on Arlington’s heavily-trafficked Columbia Pike. The proprietors there were struggling, so Rider made them an offer they couldn’t refuse: he shared his sauces and his recipes so they could turn the small restaurant into a Pedro and Vinny’s.

“When we opened up in Arlington, we didn’t do any advertising and it got busy immediately,” he says. “It’s still growing.”

Rider says he is in talks to potentially open a new location in Vienna, Va. The demographics are ripe for new Pedro and Vinny’s restaurants across the greater D.C. area.

He says he has no interest in turning it into a corporate franchise like Chipotle.

“It’s working out well on Columbia Pike because those people are entrepreneurs; they’re not just employees, they’re owners,” Rider says.

But while expansion is always on his mind, his attention doesn’t stray long from the confines of his sidewalk cart, at least when another regular customer approaches.

“Hey, it’s the burrito man!”