Beyond Apps

There’s an app for everything nowadays – from dating to tracking fitness to finding a great new restaurant. And the same thing goes for transportation apps – they range from matching you with a carpool buddy to counting down to the next bus. In fact, Austin is #1 in the “Innovative Transportation Index” – meaning you have lots of high-tech options to help you live car-lite.Screen shot 2015-09-01 at 12.34.49 PM

When designers and programmers build transportation apps, they are aiming to satisfy a consumer need they’ve identified. The best mobile apps are built through the eyes of a user, so that the end result is intuitive and gives you exactly the information you want. Most of these apps – like RideScout and Carma – are about using the transportation system in a smarter way, and they direct individuals to existing services. Given the direction apps like those are going, it’s easy to imagine that at a certain point we’ll have more apps than we know what to do with… but that that should also mean that the system itself has improved, right?

At a recent Transportation Techies meetup, Justin Elszasz, an open data analyzer who blogs at The Training Set, encouraged hackers to look beyond apps and act more like investigative journalists – using data analysis to support better policy formation and planning at the local level.

Open Austin is a citizen volunteer group that promotes open government, open data, and civic application development. Their Park Equity App just won a U.S. Census Bureau Open Data Challenge for doing just that: working with the City to mine data and suggest where parks were most sorely needed.

Capital Metro, which has a mobile app, is also working with groups like RideScout and Dadnab to make real-time arrival information widely available.

One of the easier ways Apps can contribute helpful user information is ranking or rating experiences. The Maryland Transit Administration, for instance, is stepping up as a leader in working with these tech groups. The MTA will soon start publishing ridership information per route and per bus stop, as well as on-time performance data. They also host a service called “Rate your Ride” that encourages riders to rate every trip, good or bad, and answer basic questions about their experience. This data is also publicly available, and used to constantly improve MTA service.

Apps can make transportation options easier to find and use, helping individuals solve their mobility challenges on a case-by-case, trip-by-trip basis. But the new wave of transportation tech can – and should – be much more. Public agencies and hackers seem like unlikely bedfellows; after all, they start from radically different priorities and roles. However, data can become a language that informs and challenges both planning and operational assumptions. We hope to see these robust partnerships continue to grow in Austin as agencies see the value of utilizing the city’s plentiful tech talent.

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