Strength in Numbers: Using Crowdsourcing to Improve Transit

Crowdsourcing is part of your life, whether you know it or not.

Since the advent of smart phones and Web 2.0, crowdsourcing has blossomed into a mainstay of two-way communication between customers and the organizations with which they engage online. It is used for everything from emergency management to hailing a ride downtown to finding the best dim sum restaurant. Crowdsourcing is the basis for the ubiquitous star rating system that is used by the likes of Facebook, Uber, Google, Amazon, and nearly all other online platforms.

But can crowdsourcing be used to improve our public transit systems?

The answer is yes. The Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT), in partnership with the University of South Florida’s Center for Urban Transportation Research (CUTR), conducted a research project to link several crowdsourcing technologies and create a platform for citizens to help agencies maintain and improve the transit system.

“Most of the technologies we need already exist,” said Dr. Sean Barbeau, Principal Mobile Software Architect for Research and Development at CUTR. “Each provides a valuable piece. However, there are some unique challenges to applying them efficiently to the transit system.”

The research project addressed three of those challenges:

  1. Valuable information must be gathered. Citizens need a single, reliable platform to send transit agencies enough relevant information to make informed decisions, like location information and images.
  2. Information must be triaged. Once that information starts to flow, it must be organized so transit agencies can best use it to address problems.
  3. Work tasks must be assigned properly. Customer service tickets must be assigned to the agency with jurisdiction over the problem.

Problem 1: Gathering Information

There are many transportation crowdsourcing technologies available. Barbeau and his team chose OneBusAway, a free open-source project designed for use by transit agencies. OneBusAway includes mobile apps for real-time transit information and its code can be modified for particular agency needs. It has been used in cities across the country, including Seattle, San Diego, Washington D.C., New York City, and Tampa.

“Transit riders really like apps like OneBusAway,” Barbeau said. “The real-time information they provide reduces anxiety and, as a result, riders have a better perception of transit service generally.”

OneBusAway served as a foundation for this project, providing a portal through which citizens could funnel information from the ground about what is and is not working along the transit system.

Problem 2: Triaging Information

OneBusAway provided the mechanism for gathering feedback from the public, but that can be a double-edged sword. Sorting through the vast amount of information received from the public and determining its relevance or actionability can be overwhelming.

“Agencies nationwide are struggling with this,” Barbeau said. “Providing that open channel of communication is great, but when you have thousands of people using these apps, it is a challenge to manage all of that information in a meaningful way so agencies can take action.”

The research team’s solution was to build an interface that would link OneBusAway with existing customer service management platforms using a standard called Open311.

Open311 provides a channel of communication between the public and transit agencies that can operate much like social media. Users report issues and agencies can respond directly to them. Others can then comment, providing additional feedback.

“This way, the person reporting the problem knows they have been heard,” Barbeau said. “They are not talking to an automated system. They know there is a real person on the other end.  At the same time, this communication effort is very streamlined for the agency, allowing them to interact with a large number of users.”

Combining OneBusAway’s transit information gathering capability with Open311-based multi-faceted issue management systems into a single interface provided a focused way to solve the research team’s first two problems.

“We didn’t want to reinvent the wheel,” Barbeau said. “We thought it would be better to just create a streamlined interface where agencies could plug and play with existing issue management tools that support the Open311 standard.”

Problem 3: Assigning Tasks

Transportation systems are complex, both technically and administratively. For any given roadway segment, multiple agencies may be responsible for maintenance of different elements.

“Intermodal travel always covers multiple jurisdictions,” Barbeau said. “Transit agencies are managing the bus stops, local departments of transportation are responsible for the roads, and local municipalities maintain the sidewalks. Getting public feedback to the right people is another difficult part of the whole process.”

Therefore, knowing the exact location of a particular issue reported by a citizen is crucial. Then service tickets contain the right information which can be delivered to the responsible entity to address.

Using the system designed by Barbeau’s team, users can upload images and other specifics of where they see an issue, allowing representatives receiving the Open311 tickets to deliver the information to the appropriate agency. The transit agency can also follow up with the user, adding completion and a personal touch to the interaction.

Images from OneBusAway
Two cross-jurisdictional safety issues reported by OneBusAway users: an open electrical box on the left and a broken storm drain on the right.      Source: CUTR

Case Study: Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority (HART)

The Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority (HART) in Tampa was looking for a better way to interact with its users.

“We initially had an email address set up where people could send us feedback,” said Shannon Haney, Intelligent Transportation Systems Project Manager for HART. “We quickly realized that there wasn’t enough data for us to make a work ticket or report back to them. We needed a better reporting system.”

That’s when HART implemented a system based on CUTR’s Open311 additions to OneBusAway and combined it with another Open311-based tool called SeeClickFix.

“When a citizen reports a problem, they don’t know what part of the infrastructure is owned by which agency, and they shouldn’t have to bounce from agency to agency until they find the right one,” Haney said. “With this system, they just report a problem and know it will be handled correctly.”

Customers can also track the status of their issue as it moves through the agency.

“When customers report an issue, they not only get a copy of their report, they can watch it move through the system,” said Kemly Jimenez Green, Manager of Customer Service and Paratransit for HART. “We can even post follow-up questions if we need more details. And the user gets a message when the ticket is closed telling them how the issue was resolved.”

This new interactivity has already helped HART make more informed decisions about its infrastructure. In one instance, the agency moved a bus stop to address safety concerns as a result of feedback from app users.

This new level of sophistication has increased HART’s quality of communication with citizens without adding to the agency’s workload.

OneBusAway Analytics
The real-time analytics data being collected from HART’s OneBusAway app shows how it is being used by transit riders.     Source: CUTR

“It’s almost like social media,” Green said. “If I need someone in a particular department to see an issue, I can just tag them or send them a direct message. It hasn’t created more work. It flows very nicely.”

A Crowded Future

Barbeau sees lasting benefits to the crowdsourcing approach and many possibilities for others to add to and improve based on the interface his research team built in OneBusAway. The software they implemented is Open311-compliant and should work with any Open311-compatible system.

“This project really connected the pipes between these different systems so they could talk to each other in a standardized way,” Barbeau said. “If someone else wants to take it and plug in another customer management system for their area that supports Open311, it should all work with all the same benefits.”

For More Information

BDV26-977-05 Improving Access to Transit through Crowdsourced Information
Summary | Final Report