A while back, we told you about a You Tube video that sparked a conversation between Adam Fish and Insider Louisville and eventually bloomed into an email thread that included upwards of 20 people and more than 30 back-and-forths.
The video is about how technology entrepreneurs can help build a smarter city (in this case, San Francisco).
A couple of days into our emailing, Ted Smith, the Fischer Administration’s director of Economic Development and Innovation here in Louisville, was invited on board. He encouraged a continued dialogue and invited the email list to the 2nd annual Louisville Transportation Camp.
The event took place last night at TARC’s Gold LEED Certified Maintenance Annex and Training Facility. The evening began with a tour of the facility – which was really impressive but the subject for another article – and introductions (and Papa John’s pizza).
More than 30 people were in attendance including Barry Barker, the executive director of TARC, and reps from several TARC and city departments, including Metro Technology and the Downtown Development Corp.
There were a couple of concerned and/or interested citizens in the room, who raised very interesting questions and concerns from the perspective of near-daily consumers of public transit. But the vast majority of the people in attendance have or could eventually have economic fingers in the transit pudding – either from the city side or the tech entrepreneurial side– including Metromapper, Mavizon, Awesome Inc, Insider Louisville, Peak 10, Forge, Building Layer, MapGrapher, and Roobiq.
After Smith’s introduction, Michael Schnuerle of Metro Mapper, recapped last year’s camp (you can read all about it in his blog post here) and Barker discussed TARC’s current challenges and initiatives.
Since the last Transportation Camp, TARC has opened its GTFS feed to Google and the public. That means you can map a trip using public transportation in Louisville. (In other words, it’s the data that feeds that little bus button on Google maps).
But what the entrepreneurs are chomping at the bit for is real-time GPS data (and to a lesser extent, real-time camera data).
Currently, TARC is using software supplied by a company called Trapeze to manage their bus locations. Trapeze, whose head office is in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, with no Kentucky offices, provides systems to manage transit, emergency vehicles, and school transportation. Trapeze allows the TARC HQ to track their busses using real-time GPS, but the company does not allow that data feed to be public. Yet.
This isn’t a Louisville problem. It’s a Trapeze problem. According to John Nelson, the IT Director at TARC, “There are four or five cities in the US who are sending real-time data to Google. None of them use Trapeze.”
TARC has been turning up the pressure on Trapeze to allow for the availability of this information. Barker says that real-time GPS data will be available on TARC’s Trip Planner (powered by Trapeze) sometime in December.
By March, he says, Trapeze’s software should be able to release real time data to the public. According to Michael Schnuerle of Metro Mapper, “This will make bus arrival times more accurate in apps and services and allow animated maps to be created showing all the city busses locations at once.”
But this data will be slow. At least to my understanding. Maybe someone else who was in attendance last night can correct me if I am wrong. But according to Nelson, this data only refreshes once every two minutes.
That, to me, isn’t “real time” data.
Nelson also said, “We wouldn’t want you to ask for an update every minute. With one request you get information on every bus that’s out there.” He discussed the need to limit the number of times someone can click the “refresh” button on these real-time maps; otherwise the system could be overloaded.
Again, I am happy to be wrong, but I’m an avid user of Twitter, and I take real-time – like real real-time– data for granted. I’m a pretty mild-mannered, but if it’s 20 degrees out and I’m waiting for the downtown trolley, I don’t think I can be counted on to be disciplined enough not to mash that refresh button every ten seconds to find out where my warm ride is.
I followed up with Roobiq’s Chris Vermilion after the event.
He said: “One reasonable attitude would be to simply accept the TARC infrastructure as is, wait until March, and see what we can do with the realtime data when Trapeze provides it. This certainly seemed like the approach TARC was pushing. On the other hand, it seemed like the discussion at the very end suggested there could be interest in trying out a Mavia-based solution which could do a total end-run around Trapeze. I’m tempted to think of these as parallel development branches, either or both of which could succeed.”
Mavia, a device developed by Louisville-based software company Mavizon, is a dongle that plugs into a vehicle’s computer port and uses data from the car to provide not only GPS but also diagnostic information to web and app platforms.
Schnuerle says, “Mavizon offered to place their devices on any number of busses, I offered to make a web interface to visualize their locations on a map, and Peak 10 offered to host the servers, all for at no cost to TARC. So we’ll see if this pilot program idea moves forward at TARC.”
Vermilion says, “This could be a fair amount of work, but if the resulting solution used the same output format as the eventual Trapeze format, we wouldn’t be locked into one or the other by building apps on top.”
Ted Smith suggested that perhaps the best testing ground would be a high-profile experiment with the downtown trolleys.
So, good news, right? The fact that TARC and Smith were willing to facilitate the second of these Transportation Camps suggests pretty strong level of openness. Barker even opened by saying, “We’ve got to start being nimble.”
But when Adam Fish of Forge and Roobiq asked Nelson, “If there was one thing you needed help with from the tech community, what would it be?” Nelson’s response was, “Nothing I can think of.”
Toward the end of the event, I asked Barker how long the city has to be married to Trapeze, and he said, “We can’t get out of this marriage.”
Nelson followed up, “I don’t think you understand how complex our investment is.”
To which I replied, “No, I have no idea.”
And we left it at that.
Schnuerle, whose business seems– next perhaps to Mavizon– most poised to work with TARC at a moment’s notice left the event feeling much more optimistic than I did.
Schnuerle summarized the event on the Metro Mapper blog, “Like last year, there was a great energy and enthusiasm on the part of the public, local entrepreneurs, Metro Louisville, and TARC. The ideas were a bit more focused this year and seem to be within reach. The next camp might be as early as March, when the real-time GPS feed is likely to launch. Thanks to everyone who attended and let’s keep the momentum going!”