Monday, June 18, 2007

Lafayette's Bus Routes to be Tracked Live

Here's a little dream that you should see live by the end of the summer: A webpage that tracks the position of all the city buses in real time.

The Advertiser runs the story this morning. The gist:

"This allows us to give information to the public," Mitchell said.

"They can go online and see where their bus is in relation to their bus stop in real time."

Those who use the online service will be able to set an alarm at a specific point on the route, that will alert them when their bus reaches that point on the map in relation to the bus stop, Mitchell said.

Now that is nifty. There are all sorts of public safety, scheduling, and efficiency reasons to keep close track on the position of your buses. (The major package delivery corporations and many of the long-haul trucking firms and airlines already do this. —I recently was able to track a friends' flight from San Antonio to Lafayette in real time on the carrier's website. We left the house when the plane hit the parish line and met her coming off the breezeway.)

There's not much in the way of a hint as to how this info will be provided. It'd be great if it could be provided in a format that would allow anyone to use it...for instance to provide a feed that would be usable on a cell phone or as a module on a community commons site.

(Google is testing a format for such....Google Transit Feed Specification (GTFS) Here's an example of how this works. The current iteration of the Google labs project doesn't include a real-time feed that uses GPS data. But it is pretty clear that the right programmer could add that relatively simply using the Google API and tools like Gadgets to overlay the updated GPS coordinates. See Austin's implementation. (Hah!!! See update below, the overlay's already been done.))

As fun as this is now imagine how useful it will be once the fiber-based wifi system is operational. Take your laptop, iphone, blackberry, cell or other net-connected device and track where your bus is now. No uncertainty, no trying to remember all the schedules for all the buses. You can be an occasional user. One of the differentiators for many people between large cities and small towns is how useful the public transit system is. Large cities like Chicago or San Francisco already use a version of this. Properly implemented this could go a long way toward making it practical -- and comfortable -- for people who do not have to use the transit system to do so. The folks downtown realize that:

Mitchell said the Web site combined with the GPS tracking is another method to make people aware of Lafayette's bus system and how it works.

"This is another way we can get people to ride the buses and make it more convenient for our riders," Mitchell said.

Good for the transit folks. Good for Lafayette. It will be a huge improvement over the current set of online pdf schedule maps which don't appear to have been updated recently.

Update!!!....in my poking about a bit more I found just what I want for Lafayette--Look at this google-based overlay of data piped through NextBus for San Francisco. It appears to update every 30 seconds or so. The google underpinning is free; all NextBus had to do was provide a java-based overlay of the current GPS reading for each bus. It works on my Mac, your PC, and any mobile device that can browse the web and play the java applet.

3 comments:

Edward said...

We Americans always marvel at the potential offered by technology. It's part of our cultural makeup. Unfortunately that potential is rarely fulfilled. The fiber network will be an amzaing resource with the potential to help us transform our community. But cool web apps are not enough (don't get me wrong, it is a really cool app). We need the vision and the determination to transform our community. We need community leaders with the vision and determination to inspire the people. I'm not sure we're there yet.

John said...

Edward,

You're right. Pretty much exactly right. :-)

The fiber and wifi and public ownership of the same only set the stage for one largish component of a change I (and you and others) would like to see.

You say that first _we_ need to have "the vision and determination" and then that we need leaders with the same that can inspire us to that vision. That's circular (in a good, feedback sort of way). People with vision get leaders that express the common vision and such leaders inspire more of the same. The hard part is to get the cycle started.

My own observation is that leaders like Terry and Joey are pretty good and can participate in a virtuous cycle without having the instinct to block it. (Something that is not true of all in public life.)

The place to start, though, is with a "seed" group (or groups) that can hammer out a vision for the future of our city--and decide on some crucial elements that they can work to bring into reality.

Which brings us back to the subject of the original post. The web app is cool...and modestly useful. But what led me to focus on it is the idea that a few people working together could help construct a "Lafayette commons" that would both make the net a viable _local_ resource and express the principles that Lafayette could follow in building further on the common resource that the LUS fiber will be. The bus module is one small example of what such a commons would make available.

Hope that's not too dense...please feel free to query.

We're also looking for folks to help build this--both conceptually and in terms of coding. Anyone interested can contact me here. Edward, would you be interested? It sounds as if you have a handle on what is necessary.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad i came across this article. I have just finished studying an Engineering degree in Glasgow, Scotland and over the course of the final year my focus has shifted towards the implementation and coordination of existing technologies for real functional use. That is to say making something into more than a cool gimmick or brief piece of entertainment. I actually started thinking about the very subject you are discussing and decided to see what work has been done toward it. You talk about cool web applications, but this is much more significant.This is a system to bring the state and the community closer together.

i don't really know much of the technology yet and havn't researched an awful lot yet. But my understanding is that all of the necessary technology is already in place. Either currently in use or well on its way. The most important aspect about this for me is that it is not simply a web application but a java based mobile phone application. Every single person i know has a mobile phone, and what's more they always have it on their person. A powerful yet simple interface to inform people of where and when their public transport is departing from etc would be invaluable. As things are in Scotland right now, barely anyone has a clue what bus goes where, or when the bus will arrive, even where to go to catch the bus. Then when you get on the bus you don't really know where or when to get off. It is a REAL problem, but yet with state funding alongside plans for extension of the public transport system i believe the numbers of people getting on buses would dramatically increase.

The knock on effects of this would be marvellous. Firstly quiter and less busy roads, i.e. less congestion and shorter journey times. Less vehicles = less emissions so pollution in busy cities would also reduce. The greater the number of people travelling the more more can be investing in extending and expanding public transport even furthur.

I honestly do see this as a giant step in the right direction. It's exactly the right type of application for wifi/internet phones.

sorry for rambling. If you could inform me any furthur in this field that would be great

Ben