Getting from Point A to Point B

Locals power a transit app in Brazil.

[Para lêr isto em portugues, clique aqui.]

Students preparing to map local bus routes.

You don’t have to be a techie to design a smart tech solution. Sometimes the hardest part of our work at Caravan Studios is convincing community members that their expertise, intelligence, and commitment to an issue equips them with the required skills to design a mobile app or a service that solves real problems.

And by “designing,” I don’t mean with bits and bytes, but with knowledge: of problems, of history, and well, with paper and glue, too.

So when community members and librarians met at local public libraries in Porto Alegre and Belo Horizonte, Brazil to participate in our Generator events, they brought all of it: their interest, their experiences, and their desire to make change, together. And design, they did!

By the end of the first day, they developed a list of shared problems they faced:

  • Where do I deposit solid waste?
  • Where are the bus stops, and when do the buses arrive?
  • Where are the farmer’s markets?
  • How can we support local growers?
  • What’s going on in local libraries?
These are what prototypes look like.

The next step was to focus their efforts on developing these problems into prototype solutions. They designed using paper, glue, scissors — crafty items — in order to dream big and visualize how technology might help solve these problems. These paper prototypes are instrumental in communicating need and particular features the community believes will help them and others solve these problems. Once complete, the prototypes were displayed to a wider set of people in a public place — local libraries. Library visitors, community members — everyone — was invited to vote for the designs that they felt would solve the problems that were most important to them.

The people spoke

The public votes on the prototypes at local public libraries

The prototypes that received the most votes were for tools to help find where to deposit trash and recycling, find what’s going on in local libraries, and an app to find my local bus. Each of these designs were eventually transformed into technology solutions, but for this story, we’re focusing on ByBus, the design that imagined a technology solution to help community members find their bus with ease when they need it.

If you live in a big city with a robust transportation system, you’ve no doubt enjoyed a mobile app that helps you find a nearby stop or learn to-the-minute when your bus will arrive. This is what community members dreamed: to have accurate information at their fingertips. Alas, like the problem the app meant to solve, the story took a more circuitous route — no pun intended — with no easy solutions.

Researching a technology challenge

First, we wanted to understand what already exists in the market. When possible, we much prefer identifying an existing app or a technology tool that solves that need we heard, rather than developing a wholly new solution. It didn’t take long to learn that in the city of Canoas, Brazil, a transit app was developed that shows scheduled, non-real time information about bus stops. The developers were happy to talk about their app and share useful information about why and how it was developed. In the end, we decided against sharing their app with the greater community because it didn’t display real-time information, which was the persistent need community members voiced.

The players emerge: and the big one isn’t a human

After much research and many conversations with people who have developed transit apps or who study them, it became clear that there were two prevailing companies beyond Google Maps — Moovit and Transit — that share a large part of the market, but the biggest player was the data format: GTFS (General Transit Feed Specification), a standard used worldwide to make real-time transit data a reality. In order to use GTFS to solve the problems the community members in Brazil described, it was critical that the data be structured in a particular way.

And it wasn’t.

We talked to people developing technologies and mapping processes in Manila, in Mexico City, in Poland, in Kenya, in Austria, people who generously shared their experiences and their advice on where to look next. All of these conversations helped us understand how an early idea to hack the realtime system using GPS-enabled running watches or the paddles to find your keys wasn’t a sound strategy. Instead, we imagined how the community might crowd-source the data required to produce the technology.

We also learned the value of a good partner in the transit operator. In one town in Brazil, the operator, Bento Transportes, was motivated by the fact that hundreds of community members voted on a solution that would tell them where their stop is located and when the bus will arrive. The events that produced these solution prototypes were covered in the local paper, which expanded the reach and stoked the imaginations of community members who wanted to see this change. The transit operator was now listening and willing to help.

Organizing the legions of data capturers

Librarians are key contributors to much of the work Caravan Studios initiates. Libraries are hosts for Caravan Studios events, allowing for diverse sets of community members to engage in dreaming and designing solutions that solve their present problems. Librarians are also skilled connectors who have deep knowledge of their community members, their challenges, and their strengths.

Now that we understood what was needed to provide a technical foundation for a transit app, we looked to community members for help. A librarian who had been part of the project from the beginning connected with a local technical school, encouraging them to engage high school students to participate in this unique project.

This collaboration, along with Trillium Transit, a Portland, OR-based transit company whose founder has been involved in the evolution and adoption of the GTFS protocol, fueled Caravan Studios’ mapathon in Farroupilha, Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil. The goal was to map the entire transit system: every bus route, every stop, and the intervals between each stop. This data was then uploaded from GPS devices and smartphones into OpenStreetMap, an open source mapping tool. Student volunteers cleaned up the data and created the first comprehensive map of the city’s transit system. This map serves as the base for the GTFS feed, which is managed using Trillium’s GTFS Manager software. This software exports GTFS data that can be ingested by Google Maps and mobile apps like Transit, which recently released a Portuguese language version of their app.

As happens when you dig deep into a topic, you learn something new. When the students and Caravan Studios gathered in Farroupilha, it became clear by talking to transit operators that the 36 routes that had been communicated to the teams were far more complicated than suspected. In a small town like Farroupilha, bus drivers made special stops for riders that over time became routes only traveled by particular bus drivers. Knowledge of the scope of those special routes was the domain of Gilmar, one of the directors of operation for the bus company.

Gilmar, surrounded by team members, taking in his knowledge.

Luckily for the teams, Gilmar was happy to explain the extent of the information. This learning moment punctuated why including community members and stakeholders throughout the process is so important. If Gilmar had not been invited to participate in the project, the students would have moved forward and missed a critical piece of the local system. Also, we were thrilled that students contributed so much to this project. Their curiosity, intelligence, and enthusiasm expanded our learning and deepened the local commitment to this project.

Riding the bus with a purpose

A student GPS mapper on the bus

Ultimately, the routes were mapped by the students who were participating in this unique opportunity to gather local data in hopes of improving their own transit use. Students rode the buses, documented route information, and tracked the GPS coordinates to upload to the open-source platform, OpenStreet Maps. In three days, students mapped over 200 routes that were now standardized and visible in the Transit app. The crucial piece of missing information was now compiled by local students: the missing GTFS dataset.

It’s all learning

Like many of the projects Caravan Studios leads, this one was a labor of learning and sharing and gathering people together. Ricky Abisla, the lead instigator of this project, connected with a variety of people from Columbia, Poland, Mexico, Brazil, Denmark; organizations like the World Bank, Trillium, Transit, Moovit; and transit experts like Andy Nash in Denmark, Jackie Klopp of Columbia University’s Earth Institute, Diego Cuesy and Cristián Guerrero in Mexico City, Michal Gorski in Poland, Gabriel Oliveira and Bernardo Serra of the Institute for Transportation & Development Policy in Rio de Janeiro, Flavio Andre Treib in Canoas, Brazil, and David Schönholzer in Berkeley, CA.

Looking back, we were surprised by how complicated the process was for a town of 70,000 with 26 buses comprising their entire transit system. The encouragement by the experts that Ricky spoke with, and the invaluable information they shared fed the core of this project and gave us the confidence to move forward with the volunteers, students, and librarians in Farroupilha who made this project a success.

The data collection is not yet complete, and the students are well-prepared to finish mapping the remaining routes. For the future, it’s our hope that Caravan Studios can share and publish more broadly the details of what we experienced and learned. We also believe that other educational institutions can benefit from the curriculum that led the student work during the Mapathon. We hope to publish the explicit steps required to entertain a local project like this ByBus and are optimistic we’ll have an opportunity to replicate this project in other regions, as accurate data is often the missing link to developing an effective transit resource.

Watch a video of the project in action.

Please join us

For now, we’re interested in what interests you. Tell us your ideas or thoughts about this project or topic. Or perhaps you’d like to join us — please get in touch!

~Sarah Washburn, a member of the Caravan Studios team