Transit applications and the data that supports them have a way of inspiring those closest to their use.
Days before the first Apps for SEPTA hackathon, the latest in a tradition of mass transit tools for Philadelphians, is bubbling to the surface: NEXT-Septa.
[Full Disclosure: Technically Philly is sponsoring the hackathon.]
“The goal is to provide a simple, fast and pleasing way to get the next few arrival times for SEPTA bus, subway and trolley routes,” said Reed Lauber, who called it a learning project. “It is specifically not intended to be a comprehensive SEPTA app. It aims to do this one job and do it well.”
Lauber, 32, said the project was inspired by the now defunct SEPTime, a project from Tom Boutell, whom Technically Philly interviewed recently about his role in developing the .PNG file format.
“The way the GTFS data is organized was not really ideal for the way I wanted to present information to users, and had to do a fair amount of manipulation to get it all to work.
The hardest part was actually getting a simple list of stops for a given route. Also, I wish routes were named a bit differently. I’ve always felt that using the last stop as the name of a route was a bad idea. I don’t really care that the bus I want to take will terminate in some part of the city I’ve never been to, an hour from now. All I care about are things like northbound or southbound.” – Reed Lauber
“I was working with Tom to update the [user interface of SEPTime] before he ultimately decided to retire the project. That left me with a lot of the interface designed and coded, but no app on which to put it. The loss of SEPTime also meant my go-to tool for quickly getting the time for the next subway or bus was gone. I decided I wanted that resource to live on and would build something to replace it.”
Though Boutell closed his project because of new initiatives from SEPTA, Lauber said NEXT-Septa differentiates itself from SEPTA’s TransitView, for example, because it’s a broad glimpse of a given route showing where they are on a specific map and, “that type of overview isn’t necessarily what you really want at a given moment.”
“In time, I would like to use the TransitView data to allow NEXT-Septa to show delays, but the data isn’t specifically organized like that, so it’s going to take a spatial analysis and fall-back code. That’s the fancy way of say, it’s going to be really hard,” Lauber said. “The takeaway for me was that the TransitView data wasn’t nearly as useful as I had expected.”
So he’s sticking with what he has for now. A working prototype was built over Labor Day weekend, said Lauber, a South Philly resident and Delaware County native, followed by two weeks with beta users working on bugs.
Lauber currently works for Santa Monica, Calif. startup DealBird, which has worked with new Philly branding agency the Gamut. He spent three years working for popular Callowhill GIS shop Azavea. The graduate of Kenyon College in Ohio never took his formal development education passed a single frustrating Java class but still found his way into web apps.
Lauber says he wants NEXT Septa to gain traction to make continued upkeep worth his time but doesn’t have revenue plans for what will remain a hobby project.
“Like so many urban developers, I just want to provide resources that make my fellow citizens’ lives a little easier,” he said. “Really, I made it for myself and hope that someone else out there will also find it useful.”