By: Diane Stirling
(315) 443-8975

A new smartphone app that uses crowdsourcing of bus riders to provide information about predicted bus arrival times and occupancy is undergoing a new field test in Syracuse.

The app, “Tiramisu” (meaning “pick me up” in Italian), was developed by a team at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), Pittsburgh, including new School of Information Studies (iSchool) faculty member Yun Huang. Though the app has been tested only in Pittsburgh and Syracuse, its potential is national and beyond, and Research Assistant Professor Huang believes there are other public services that can be enhanced via the crowdsourced information app.

The project began when the Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center on Accessible Public Transportation (RERC-APT) wanted to see if it could improve transit quality for people with disabilities, Huang explained. Funded by the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research, the project is led by principal investigator Aaron Steinfeld and an interdisciplinary team including CMU faculty members Anthony Tomasic, John Zimmerman, and Charlie Garrod. The app’s first deployment in Pittsburgh was in July 2011. Huang worked as a postdoctoral fellow in the CMU team from 2010 to 2012. Field testing began in Syracuse soon after Huang arrived at her new position at the iSchool this August.

The technology behind the app is simple and cheap, requiring only a few servers plus the “free” battery power from participants’ smartphones. The integral element is an intangible one—the data volunteered by app users. It is this “good Samaritan” element, and people’s sense of citizenship and interest in sharing information, that makes the app functional, according to Huang.

When riders convey detailed information about current ride conditions in real time, passengers with disabilities, and others who may have difficulties taking public transit for one reason or another, can more easily decide what to do. For instance, knowing an upcoming bus is full is important to a rider who uses a wheelchair, Huang noted. For those who are disabled, or those who have many bags to manage or have children in strollers, that kind of data is invaluable, making the difference between a ride that is comfortable or one that is harrowing, she said.

Initial research showed plenty of networks available, since smartphone market share has been steadily rising around the world. The real question was whether people would want to give away information without a coupon, discount, sticker or other incentive, as some apps offer. “We didn’t give anything back except the real-time bus information,” Huang recalled of the field test. “You use peoples’ resources for free; so everything is based on human citizenship.” 

Researchers found that there was a value, however— participants felt a sense of belonging and of being part of the service. “Participants are not only consumers of the service, they are actually part of the creation of information, so they feel like they are contributing,” Huang noted. The dynamics of the “citizenship factor” in relation to the app’s success is the subject of a paper that Huang and the research team hopes to present at an upcoming major conference.

In addition to being a project researcher, Huang was a developer and was in charge of the student developer team. She also managed the system release and oversaw field testing.  For the Syracuse/Centro rollout, she has served as the liaison to Centro.

“Centro has been very cooperative providing the data feed in the format needed,” Huang said, and the Syracuse deployment went smoothly and quickly. She said she hopes to continue working closely with Centro, since there are other local community services that can be co-designed.  

This app, and other uses, also represent “a useful tool in concert with the University’s public mission and outreach,” Huang said. “We’re building a new dialogue channel for people to really engage and communicate with the transit agencies directly. There is definitely more coming to the infrastructure that we believe will improve immediacy, transparency, and communicating among riders,” she continued. Huang and the team are working on an upgraded version that interfaces with other social networks, such as Twitter. They also are looking into other ways to expand citizen engagement into other types of public services with the app.

The ultimate goal is to “see this as a very successful app employed throughout the whole nation. It is easy for us to conduct user studies and push it to other cities,” Hung said. To that end, the next app release is planned for a large city transit system, whose location and particular challenges will provide other unique and useful testing grounds. Eventually, the app can be customized and made very useful for all cities, Huang believes.