After the jump, Brian James Kirk talks with one of the intrepid, unpaid souls who created iSepta, the bold new application that aims — gasp! — to make SEPTA suck less. No, seriously.
Technologicology: After Yesterday, No One Will Ever Again Wait For SEPTA
Yesterday, three developers went public with an interactive SEPTA route planner designed for mobile phones. I couldn’t take an objective outlook if I tried, and neither could anyone who’s ever struggled with the HTML at septa.com. iSepta hath been crowned the new transit king.
Never mind that it took an amateur developer (that is, unpaid for their services) to create the product, or that they did it in the same amount of time that it probably took someone at SEPTA to design that kaleidoscopic means-of-transportation nightmare JPEG on their front page. What is really impressive is how functional iSepta is—begging us to wonder: Could a public utility ever be this organized on their own?
I sought out one of the developers, Randy Schmidt, to answer this question and to answer what is really perplexing me: Whether or not these dudes have, uhm, real jobs.
Tell the world what you’ve been up to.
iSepta is trying to make SEPTA schedules mobile-phone friendly. It’s targeted toward the iPhone but it works good on the Blackberry and other mobiles. And we have a text message interface for phones that don’t support data. Just text “iseptanow start station name to stop station name” to 41411.
What are some of the key features? Aside from the slick, iPhone interface.
Alright, so I’m in the city, when is the next train leaving from where I am? Can I leave now, or should I wait ten more minutes before I leave? [iSepta] shows the next three trains for that planned trip. It saves the data, so once you plan your trip, you almost never have to put in the information again.
We try to make it as simple as possible. We figured the thing that mattered most to people was where they were leaving and where they were going; we didn’t want them to have to know which rail to ride, like the R3 or the R5—we tell them that. A lot people wonder what stop they’re at, so we offer a trip detail page that tells you the times for each stop. So you can set your alarm to wake you when you get to where you’re going.
And you did this in a month? Do you guys have Real Jobs?
About six weeks ago I was on a train ride home. I [wrote on Twitter] that the Septa schedule sucks on the iPhone. A friend, Chris Conley responded and said he’d help me out. So, we had a working prototype three to four days after we started working on it. Then we ended up bringing in a user interface guy that we know, and we’ve been refining it since then.
This was a side project. I’m a freelancer and Jason Tremblay is a freelance front-end guy. Chris had a full time electrical engineering job and 2-3 weeks after working on this, I convinced him to quit. Chris and I are working on building a company.
Why do this for free? Is a lifetime supply of Transpass involved?
We didn’t really invest that much time with it. It took three to four days to get a working prototype that was 90 percent accurate and workable. But we wanted to make it kick ass. On top of that, we wanted to show what we were capable of.
Have you tried to contact SEPTA about the project? Were they flabbergasted that you didn’t use Microsoft FrontPage to design it?
We sent one email to SEPTA but that was before we started talking to some people who have higher level contacts there.
Why even bother? It looks like you guys have done pretty good on your own.
It would be valuable to get them to open-up their data. For example, if they published their data and it was an open format, people could create a mash-up between Google Maps and the schedule information. Or, doing an iPhone application like ours would be a lot easier. But SEPTA is a big organization and we’re small and light and agile and we’re able to move really quick.
What are the plans for the future? Can I get a Broad Street Line schedule up in here?
We’re going to move on to the other ones once we figure out what the real problems are with them. Regional Rail is kind of the low hanging fruit of the other ones. We’ve had a lot of requests for doing buses, but that’s a whole other animal.
We try to look at the problems that are associated with the transportation system, and how to make our data useful. The main complaint we hear about buses is that they’re late. If buses are always late, who cares what our data says? It’s one of the areas that is really hard to make useful. Sure Regional Rail is late sometimes, but for the most part it’s on time. But its more important because it takes an hour for the next train, not 5 minutes like on the Market-Frankford. Instead of just applying the same technology to other lines, it’s better to figure out the most important problem.
What can SEPTA, and other public-oriented organizations learn from this?
I think one of the biggest things is seeing things from the users’ perspective and figuring out what the problems are. SEPTA has a “train view” that shows late or canceled trains but it’s on the main page of their website. That information is valuable to people when they’re at the train station, not when they’re in front of the computer. One of the next thing we’re going to do is take that data and make it available to iSepta users to see if their train is late. Also, they’ll be able to subscribe to a train that they use regularly, and if it’s late, we’ll send them a text message.
Do you think SEPTA will eventually help you, considering you’re trying to help them?
In the past, they’ve been against stuff like this. They want to drive people to their website no matter what. They don’t want people going elsewhere for official information. Is there any business reason? It’s not like they have advertisements. Business-wise, it makes sense for them to give out their data so people can make things for SEPTA to make it better for everyone.
People are so afraid of losing their jobs because they don’t want to be associated with something that flops. It’s along the same lines in the IT industry, where the mentality is: “No one ever got fired for recommending Microsoft.” Even if it’s not the best solution, no one’s job was on the line.
Any final thoughts?
If there’s something out there that you don’t like, don’t be afraid to go out there and try to do it yourself. Instead of complaining about something being horrible, make it better.
Thanks and good luck, Randy!
Brian James Kirk is a writer and adventurer living in Philadelphia. By adventuring, he means occasionally to friends’ homes for games of Balderdash. If you know a Philadelphia technology scoop that would fit this space, you are graciously encouraged to get in touch.