Reflecting on This Is Our Stop

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!

4 Comments

  1. Robert

    You mention non-smartphone users, surprisingly, since the existence of This is our stop, and m.translink.ca, depends on smartphones. I don’t have a smartphone, can’t afford it, and probably never will. When I take the bus every day, most people on the bus don’t have smartphones, or are not using them, and most people don’t seem to have a phone. In other words, This is our stop, and m.translink.ca, are for fairly wealthy people, which seems to be less than the majority of transit users in Vancouver, and probably most places. To be really useful, these two services have to be universal. Until that happens, they will remain niche services for a certain class of people.

    Posted May 14, 2012 at 8:12 pm | Permalink
  2. Robert,

    While I agree with much of the content of your comment, I really have to take exception with the tone.

    No one denies that most bus riders are not smartphone users. If it’s not clear from my tweet, I don’t own a smartphone myself, and my use of TIOS is limited as a result. That said, I’ve also had the chance to interact with people who have developed tools involving SMS gateways (not Denim and Steel), so I’m privy to the fact that the reality of building TIOS so that it would be usable for non-smartphone users is a considerably expensive undertaking. Unfortunately, that’s just the way the chips fall when it comes to the way these telecommunication decisions have been made (though I don’t know if that’s Canada-specific or international).

    And I would take considerable exception to levelling any blame for this towards Denim and Steel, because they and their collaborators built TIOS in their spare time. That’s time away from their community commitments, their friends and family, and they did it because they wanted to build something other people would enjoy. And they are also contributing the perhaps minor but definitely non-zero amount of money for the resources to run the service at all. Most of all, as I say in my post, it’s just a start.

    So as an alternative to your approach, I would rather ask the constructive questions for actually making this happen, like: who benefits from the existence of TIOS that would be willing to put money towards making the service more broadly accessible to those without smartphones? In Portland, for example, local business sponsor specific bus stops. Or maybe piggy-back off Twitter, a service that already is accessible by SMS.

    Is answering that question something you’d be interested in contributing to, Robert?

    Karen

    Posted May 15, 2012 at 1:43 pm | Permalink
  3. When we made the decision to target smartphones in This Is Our Stop, we knew we would be leaving some people behind because of the technology divide that exists. That same divide was felt more severely when Translink started putting up fewer paper schedules after introducing SMS schedules, as there is a divide between people who do and don’t have phones.

    This was never a project with ubiquity in mind, and we don’t root our choice of technology in class divisions. We rooted that decision in the phones we see people using the most (we live right in Vancouver and what we see might be different from what others see in the burbs or elsewhere), in what we like working on, and in what we thought would produce the best overall experience. When we look at $99 iPhones at the lowest level, we see which way the future is going for phones and that’s what we built for.

    We don’t take Robert’s criticism as negative, but rather as a validation of the core concept, that conversation among riders about their infrastructure is important. What’s been so heartening about the project is that the vast majority of people posting are indeed talking about transit and the areas and people around their stops. They are, in other words, buying into the idea, and we think that’s great. If Robert feels this kind of service should be ubiquitous, Translink is the one to talk to, and we really appreciate this token of support.

    Posted May 17, 2012 at 10:23 am | Permalink
  4. A quick word on Twitter and SMS as well: these are not easy starters.

    We have a 200 character limit on our posts vs. Twitter’s 140, and from that 140 we would have to direct the message to @thisisourstop (or a new account with a shorter name), identify the stop number (likely plus a space) and one or more categories. Assuming no categories we would be cutting down to 120 characters. The two models might be too different to integrate smoothly. But we have started posting links to the stops with the most interesting comments or conversations that we see happening, and will keep experimenting like that.

    For SMS, the issues is not about character length as much as it is about communicating the feature to users. We can’t really print instructions on the stickers, and putting it on the homepage would be odd as reaching the homepage on a phone browser means you can use the app as it is now. While technically possible, it falls apart because we don’t have a huge communication pipe to get the word out to, and would have to think about how to differentiate getting a list of comments from posting one of your own. It’s tricky stuff, but these ideas are good to explore just the same.

    Posted May 17, 2012 at 10:27 am | Permalink

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  1. [...] as how it has been received by TransLink and how it has fared in its incarnations in other cities). As I’ve blogged before, I think there’s a great deal of wisdom behind the way TIOS was implemented, as an extension of [...]

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