You are not logged in. LOG IN NOW >

Detroit Residents Can Now Track Buses in Real Time

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Wednesday, September 5 2012

Detroit's brochure explains how its new text-messaging bus arrival time information system works

Code for America and the city of Detroit launched a new text messaging service Tuesday that enables the city's residents to find out when their next bus is scheduled to arrive. So far about 1,800 people have used the service, said Prashant Singh, one of the three CfA fellows who helped the city build the application.

While residents of many other cities such as New York, Portland, San Francisco and Seattle have access to such information via SMS or a smartphone app, up until now, Detroit residents have had to simply guess when their next bus was going to arrive.

The service uses Twilio to manage the text messaging, and the University of Washington's One Bus Away open-source software to manage real-time arrival information coming from the scheduling and location tracking system managed by Detroit's Department of Transportation.

The city has free access to Twilio until around the end of the year when the CfA fellows end their tenure in the city. After that, the new system will be funded by a multiple-year grant from the Federal Transit Administration, said Naomi Patton, a spokesperson for the mayor's office.

The new text messaging system took about six months to create. "A lot of time was spent trying to understand the structure of the data, and once we understood that, we were able to pull all the pieces together," Singh said.

CfA's fellows Alicia Rouault and Matt Hampel also worked on the project. The launch of the new system coincided with the first day of school for students in Detroit's public school system, with whom CfA worked to build a an initial user base. The goal is to enable students (and ultimately everyone else) to better plan their days and avoid having them hanging out endlessly at bus stops.

Users of the system text their cross streets to a dedicated number (50464) and the service sends back location information for the nearest bus stop, the bus number and route, and the next three arrival times for that bus.

CfA's work was to pull the data out of DDOT's system and make it available in the General Transit Feed Specification and in the real-time GTFS specification. That data is now available to the public. The hope is that other enterprising developers will develop a wider range of apps with this data.