Catching a Bus with a BlackBerry

Mobile apps and social media are being tweaked to serve transportation needs.
by | September 2009
 

Here's a question that goes through many a weary commuter's mind: "Where's my bus?" But "Where's My Bus" is also the name of a mobile application for the Circulator bus system that runs five routes through downtown Washington, D.C. The system lets riders know where the bus they are waiting for happens to be at the moment.

I went to check it out. While I stood at the bus stop, "Where's My Bus" let me know on my BlackBerry that the bus that would take me across town was 0.8 miles away. What it didn't tell me was the arrival time. I had to check on congestion along the roadway to figure that out.

The idea for "Where's My Bus" started in the District's planning department. Only 63 percent of District households own a car, so Harriet Tregoning, D.C.'s planning director, figured enhanced bus service would be a valuable addition.

Implementation of the mobile app fell to the transportation and information technology departments. Much of the technology was ready to go: Buses, for instance, already had GPS transponders, making it possible to track their whereabouts.

"Where other systems have fallen down is in trying to predict the time of arrival," Tregoning says. "Think how complicated traffic is." Fortunately, "Where's My Bus" doesn't predict. It just tells it like it is.

The social media site K-TOC might not have the cachet of Facebook or the name recognition of MySpace. But unlike those sites, it doesn't run into office policies that prohibit workers from using it for security reasons. K-TOC presents little threat: It's an operation that lets employees of the Kansas Transportation Department and other people in the transportation field communicate with each other. But it's like Facebook in one way: It allows members to participate in online discussions and join a community of like-minded people.

The Transportation Department developed the program last year while reevaluating its public-outreach efforts. The benefit for transportation specialists is in their ability to connect with their peers around the state. "That's where the magic comes in," says project manager Patrick Quinn. The network of users can share their professional knowledge as a group, but individuals also can use it to connect with others who have similar interests and concerns.

The site, which cost around $75,000, launched in January with the expectation that perhaps 300 public works directors, airport managers, transit operators, city and county engineers and transportation-minded residents would join in the first six months. Instead, membership climbed quickly to 700.

Quinn's job is to moderate and steer questions to the agency personnel best equipped to answer them. He sees the site as important not only for communication but as a way for the state to figure out the techniques and technologies of social media. Soon, he says, "the whole country is going to be one huge social network."

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