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Dreams of 1-stop transit-map app

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Updated: October 9, 2012 2:26PM



Chicago has a traffic jam of transit apps created by independent software developers, offering everything from transit stop data to real-time parking-space availabilities.

A home-grown startup, Greater Good Studio, is using crowdsourcing to research and rally support for an all-in-one transit-map app that would give commuters a single view of buses, trains and other public transit in real time, including the latest weather updates and whether the next bus is full.

The app is intended to let commuters figure out their travel schedules without having to jump from one app to another, and to think of public transit as a viable way to get around.

Anyone can help develop the app, which doesn’t yet have a name, by either signing up at DesigningChicago.com or checking the website for updates. The first design assignment should be posted in October.

“Imagine the collective power of the crowd to not only gather existing data, but create new data,” said George Aye, 36, who with his wife, Sara Cantor Aye, 32, founded Greater Good Studio a year ago to focus on using design to solve social problems.

The Logan Square couple chose Kickstarter to try to raise money for the app’s development, but that effort fell short. So they are now investigating other ways to raise money for the project, “Designing Chicago: New Tools for Public Transit.”

The Ayes’ background in commercial design — George’s experience at IDEO consulting firm and Sara’s at RTC and IA Collaborative — led the couple to realize that good design was often overlooked in the world of non-profits, foundations, government agencies and the emerging sector of public-sector social enterprises.

“We said, ‘Why don’t we put our money where our mouth is and start a company that focuses exclusively on using design to solve social problems?” Sara said.

The effort is also part of the local emergence of social-venture groups designed to launch mission-driven startups that do good work ranging from inner-city job training to building schools for impoverished children in Africa.

The local groups are Impact Engine, which will provide seed funding and other help to new businesses with a social mission, and Social Venture Partners-Chicago, which will provide grants to enhance and grow nonprofit groups’ existing missions.

The do-good impulse has coincided with a technological development: Public transportation data, along with lots of other government information, are now open to software developers — a process known as Gov 2.0.

One example of how government agencies are making the data accessible is the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, or CMAP’s partnership with the Chicago Community Trust to create MetroPulseChicago.org. The website lets people see data as a map, a chart, a table or other visual element to quickly assess a situation.

Chicagoans already may use a variety of transit programs, including:

† Programs that show estimated CTA transit arrival and departure times, including Bus Tracker widget, HopStop, Mapnificent, Transitly and MultiStop: Chicago.

†TransitGenie, a free iPhone app that generates quickest-route recommendations based on real-time CTA, Metra and PACE bus and train locations. Available on the iTunes App Store since 2010, TransitGenie Chicago provides real-time tracking-based transit directions and arrival times, spanning all three local transit agencies. To date, more than 100,000 users have tried TransitGenie Chicago, the public face of a research project at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

†Kono, an app created by startup Kauzu, that lets anyone with a cellphone — even a phone with no Internet access — text the “star” symbol (*) and a CTA bus station’s four-digit ID number to obtain three job listings closest to that location. To sign up, text K to (847) 973-5613. When you see the welcome, reply S to start using the app.

People with Internet-enabled smartphones can click on Kauzu.Jobs.

The computer-science assistant professor behind TransitGenie, Jakob Eriksson at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said he and his researchers at the BITS Networked Systems Lab is now working on building a system that would give drivers real-time advice on the quickest routes to take, based on tracking how many cars are on all of the city’s streets, how fast they are going and what traffic lights are signaling.

“We’re working on a couple of approaches to gather that information at low cost,” he said, including getting access to cameras, Wi-Fi receivers and motorists who agree to run apps on their smartphones to help collect data.

“It is a massive sensing challenge,” he said.

He’s working with the Chicago and Illinois transportation departments to gain access to traffic counts, estimated travel times and real-times traffic speeds.

A Purdue University researcher is working on analyzing Twitter data to determine traffic patterns and to pinpoint the most popular “hot spots” that clog traffic.

“We can see the traffic patterns of people from a variety of income, work and family levels, and show the pulse of the urban city,” said Satish Ukkusuri, an associate professor at Purdue’s School of Civil Engineering.

Ukkuauri is studying volunteers’ Tweets alongside geolocation and traffic data in New York City.

Amy Lynch, a generational expert with Bridgeworks, a Minneapolis-based consulting firm, said young people’s interest in participating in and studying efficiency and money-saving efforts stem from their entrepreneurial bent and desire to accomplish a mission.

“They do not expect to be handed a job and a role,” Lynch said. “They expect to create that, even if they work within a company. They’ll always be looking for a new project to do.”

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