hbus.ca and thoughts about crowdsourcing

hbus in action

hbus in action

So I opened up my baby, hbus.ca, to the public last week (though traffic only really started to pick up yesterday, after a positive article in the daily news). This site, a trip planner for the Halifax Regional Municipality, was the cumulation of about 6 months of part time work on my part, between contracts for my awesome company, Navarra.

I’m debating on whether or not to start a seperate blog for hbus. At the moment I’m leaning towards no: my thinking is that most people don’t care about the inner workings of a site like hbus. They just want to figure out how to get from point A to B. Those who do care can read the rest of what I (and my part time co-conspirator, Peter McCurdy) have to say. :)

The most glaring limitation in hbus right now is that its route coverage is woefully limited. Trips on the main Halifax peninsula are generally planned pretty effectively. If you’re travelling to a suburban area like Bayer’s Lake or Burnside, not so much (unless you’re lucky enough to be starting/ending near a bus timepoint). What is to be done?

A frequent suggestion I get from more technically minded folks is that I should “crowd source” the missing information. This basically implies creating a wikipedia-like architecture such that people could contribute their favourite stops, routes, etc.

It’s a tempting idea. Such sites as OpenStreetMap show that this approach can be very effective for gathering large amount of geographical data. I’m frankly not convinced it’s the right approach here though. The fact is that Metro Transit MUST have a complete set of stops, route schedules, and route plans internally. There’s no way they could plan their operations halfway effectively otherwise. Why should I burden the public with the task of recreating something which has already been done?

I may be crazy, but I think the best avenue for the moment is to try to convince Metro Transit that it would be worthwhile to make this information public. I paid for the generation of the information with my tax dollars, why shouldn’t I be able to make use of it? The preferred format for this information is Google Transit Data Feed, but I could make use of information in just about any representation (Arc GIS, etc.). Just give me what you have, and I’ll take of the rest. Over 20 of the most successful transit agencies in North America (many of them much bigger than Metro Transit) have opened up their information to the public, with only positive results.

The most obvious use of this information is a trip planner and, yes, I know every agency and their dog has (or will have) one of these. But maybe someone has a cool idea on how to make a trip planner easier to use (compare hbus.ca with Tous Azimuts). Or what about transit maps that help people figure out where to live? Or iPhone and Blackberry applications? Or cool screensavers? Or or or. The possibilities are truly endless once the data is out there. Come on Metro Transit, you have nothing to lose and the eternal love of your ridership to gain.

6 thoughts on “hbus.ca and thoughts about crowdsourcing”

  1. Congratulations on your launch! Looks great!

    One idea I had for transit sites (which may be a way to differentiate hbus.ca from Google Transit – if you’re successful with your efforts to get data out of Metro Transit, you’ll all of a sudden have competition) your is that there should be a way to comment on routes, and rate them.

    The UI and logic for this will be a bit hard – if you can’t filter out irrelevant information, people will ignore it – but I can think of a few ways that might work…

    The use case is: sure, there are bus routes that are scheduled to go from A to B at certain times. But will that actually be useful to you? Let’s say you’re at a hotel in downtown SF on a Sunday afternoon and want to go to the Haight:

    http://maps.google.ca/maps?f=d&source=s_d&saddr=1231+Market+St+San+Francisco,+CA+94103,+United+States&daddr=Haight+St+%26+Ashbury+St,+San+Francisco,+CA+94117,+USA&geocode=&hl=en&mra=cc&dirflg=r&sll=37.77727,-122.427129&sspn=0.035209,0.064716&ie=UTF8&ll=37.783571,-122.410483&spn=0.017603,0.032358&z=15&start=0

    Great! I can take the 71, or if I miss it there’s the 6, and so on. Right?

    Well, Robin and I tried this a few months ago and no, it’s wrong. We ended up waiting at the stop for 20 minutes. A 71 finally showed up but it was full. 10 minutes later we asked a local and he told us the correct answer, which was to go downstairs to the streetcar stop below and take the N streetcar to Cole Street, a 5 minute walk away.

    A truly useful transit system would have given me a way to know this… or to know that the 105 bus from Robin’s to Vendôme is late and often full during rush hour, so budget an extra 10 minutes or just walk. And so on.

    Just a thought :)

  2. Very interesting idea. Have you seen http://myttc.ca? They have a wiki around all the transit data in their planner, so you can add comments like this. Unfortunately you still need to navigate to other pages in the site to get access to this information — it would be cool to have alerts associated with specific routes that show up right in the planner. :)

  3. I feel your pain in regards to getting Metro to release their bloody info. Got hung up on twice, had three people not return my call and even had a rep say that “no one knows where that stuff is kept”.

    I envisioned a small Commodore 64 in a closet somewhere running GoTime and many things started making sense.

    I then tried scraping the metro transit schedules, but their horrid PDF formatting makes that damn near impossible.

    I fully support your efforts(you beat me to it, but according to the story, you started about 3 years before me, bah!) and am happy someone is taking the initiative where I ran out of time.

    I still have the domain I registered in lieu of my attempt if you want it(gometran.com). Just reach out to me via email if you do(not like I’m using it).

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