Last Thursday, friends and local web app artisans Tylor Sherman and Todd Sieling (principals of Denim and Steel) launched This is Our Stop, a web application they have spent the last few months developing and testing. It is a refinement of my original concept of “a Facebook wall for every bus stop” I proposed back in 2009 (then called Adopt a Stop) for a Knight News Foundation grant.
I’m absolutely thrilled — on the one hand, for the app itself, which I’ve had the joy of watching proceed from its early days to its current iteration, simple, effective yet inviting; and on the other, the amount of interest for the app has absolutely blown me away. Todd and Tylor have received a bunch of coverage from media. Most of all, I’ve really enjoyed going through the comments to see how it’s received from TransLink transit-goers. But perhaps most telling about the appeal of This is Our Stop, is that the app hasn’t even been out of launch a week and, astoundingly, it’s already been replicated for Toronto through the site MyStop.to. Denim and Steel has a first week round-up with links to all of that coverage, as well as a good selection of some of the comments people have been leaving at bus stops through TIOS.
It’s been hard to keep the smile off my face when I think about this. It seems just like yesterday, I was at an open data hackathon at the Vancouver Archives, grabbing a sharpie and a piece of flip chart paper, and dragging Richard into the lobby, determined to finally put down on paper the idea I’d had bouncing around in my head for months in order to interact with other people taking the bus waiting at their stops.
Here are three quick thoughts on what I really enjoy about both the app itself and the process through which it has unfolded.
1. Making community conversations accessible
Adopt-a-Stop was originally built on my viewing bus stop numbers act as a low-tech, SMS-friendly form of GPS. I was also heavily inspired by now-defunct Block Chalk, a tool that used graffiti as an analogy for geo-located messaging. I’m deeply interested in tools and methods that allow us to transcend time and space in telling and hearing our collective stories. Learning more about the people that make their lives in our neighbourhoods, cities and region feels like a first step to better connecting to the people in our communities, in all their diverse backgrounds, goals and aspirations. (This is Our Stop references this desire succinctly: “Give voice to the secret lives of your favourite bus stops.”)
The concept is particularly close to my heart because I think, one the one hand, transit spaces are incredibly rich yet vastly misunderstood spaces (as I think this cultural geography paper starts to capture really well); and on the other, because public transportation (in North America) is seen extremely negatively in contrast to other modes of transportation — often because of other people. I don’t think that’s true, and I know that others don’t either.
Code re-use as inter-city learning — open data and open source
TransLink’s open data consists of (among many other things) the GPS coordinates and 5-digit codes for all the buses operated by Coast Mountain Bus Company, TransLink’s operating subsidiary. The fact that this data is made available in the Google Transit Feed Specification (GTFS) — which has become a de-facto standard for transit schedule information (see this excellent post at Xconomy on the development and growth of GTFS) means that the underlying code for This Is Our Stop can be re-used to deploy a system using the bus stop and route information of just about any other transit system with data in the GTFS format. That’s pretty cool — over 300 systems around the world cool, in fact. That doesn’t mean all the work is done for getting the system elsewhere — but it does make it much easier for those who are knowledgeable and willing to put in the elbowgrease to get it right for their system and city.
Cities have historically learned and taken a lot of inspiration from each other. There’s now a lot of interest in creating infrastructures that enable cities to swap tools and methods that allow residents to better understand, use and thrive in cities (Civic Commons is I believe only one of many such projects), in addition to the traditional systems that have supported this (I’m thinking professional associations, conferences, scholarship, etc.)
Start small, really well
Another reason I’m happy that Todd and Tylor have taken this on is because they really get (way better than I do) one of the guiding rules of open source tools: to get an app of the ground by doing a small number or even one thing really well, and to move from there once people have expressed interest in it or are willing to commit effort or resources into extending it. (I’m also kind of fascinated by how Todd and Tylor have framed it as “niche social networking” — a concept that I don’t think was quite as popular back in 2009 but which appears to be quite common now.)
Perhaps it’s not a perfect analogy, but as I learned at the Tactical Urbanism talk at the American Planning Association session this year, there is growing interest in doing more planning work this way too. As transportation planning hero Janette Sadik-Khan has advocated, start off with a temporary trial or pilot (for, say, reconfiguring a street, or re-purposing an underutilized space) that shows what is possible and takes advantage of what makes sense for that place; and if it proves successful enough to attract support and buy-in, only then figure out the model for making it permanent. I think it really taps into the experiential aspect that’s sometimes required for people to fully grasp the value of a proposal. Seeing (and possibly sitting in or walking through) is believing.
Another unofficial maxim of open source is to “scratch your own itch” — in other words, develop apps that solve problems that you yourself want to see solved. I’m unendingly heartened that others are wondering what the people around them are thinking and feeling and want to use an app to share that too. Thanks again to Tylor and Todd for making what probably started off as a flight of whimsy at a bus stop into awesome reality!
As I tweeted, there’s still plenty of ways to extend TIOS — such as making the service available to non-smartphone users through SMS (perhaps using Twitter as an intermediary in order to avoid the requirement of a text message gateway). Here’s hoping it gets a chance to happen!