Tony Darby bears a wide grin as he ushers me into his office. It’s not the sort of expression you’d expect to see on the face of a man who is charged with reinvigorating Auckland’s beleaguered public transport system.
But a wide grin it is, and it heralds his introduction of Virtually Thr.
Virtually Thr? My first reaction is to wonder if this man can spell. “It’s text messaging,” he explains with a laugh. Of course. Ask your kids what it means and they will explain immediately: “It’s ‘Virtually there!’ So much for the switched-on computing editor in the age of new technology. It seems I have at last joined the ranks of the oldies who haven’t kept up with the youthful text messaging phenomen.
The point about Virtually Thr’s moniker is that it is aimed at a new generation of bus riders. Darby, as CIO at the Auckland Regional Council, aims to use new technology to raise public transport usage by 5%, a figure set by the ARC’s transport department. “Public transport makes up about $60 million worth of our business,” says Darby. Raising the number of transport users could affect a number of outcomes.“It’s not about breaking even — we are talking about a public service. Having people on public transport means less congestion in the city. It means that there is an environmental outcome because vehicles are a huge contributor to environmental degradation.” Darby’s original hope was that Virtually Thr would also reduce the number of calls to the Rideline call centre. It didn’t quite work out that way but Darby does not mind in the least. Yet another goal was to present bus information in the way customers wanted it. It was also about tapping into people’s preferred media. “And if you want to get people on to public transport you want to get them while they are young — before they reach for the car keys,” says Darby.“This project was all about tapping into the preferred medium of young people, to affect their behaviour before they reached for their keys. We asked, ‘What is the preferred method of interaction for young people?’ The answer was, of course, text messaging. That’s how they communicate.” Another preferred medium for young people is the web. Darby says the ARC found that a large portion of its website users are at university or attending the various technical institutes around Auckland. Part of the website’s significance is that it provides a way of improving public perception about transport. “Instead of looking at bus timetables and waiting in public shelters, people can actually look at the website and say, ‘Wow, I can get all I need here’. Compare that with the only options available in earlier days when bus users had to dig out their probably outdated timetables or look at the equally outdated signs at their nearest bus stops. “Now we are dealing in web-based interactions, text-based interactions and WAP interactions as well.” Darby says the Rideline call centre handles 1.4 million transactions a year — and despite the introduction of the new wireless services the number is continuing to rise. He is especially proud of the website’s discussion forums. Few other similar public service organisations would be bold enough to offer such a service, he believes. After all, everyone has a gripe or two when it comes to public transport, particularly in Auckland. “Public transport is one of the most contentious of all public services,” he says. “We are one organisation that is not hiding behind a website. Our discussion area is a place where people can have a go about the transport services, even the drivers. You will find that a lot of organisations won’t even address that particular channel. They might have a wonderful website but they won’t allow people to sound off about the services they are providing. That’s a key difference. Can you imagine IRD doing that?”Now there’s a challenge.In Darby’s words, having a public forum can be like being caught with your pants down. Complaints have to be addressed. The alternative? There is none — except, perhaps, www.ihateaucklandtransport.com, but that will never happen under Darby.“The discussion forum is being used to drive future developments. It’s a huge thing for us. It has already driven enhancements to the web services, and to our WAP environment as well as to the SMS offerings.”Darby says it is important to note that the ARC has two clear sets of customers — the ratepayers and the bus users. Naturally the ratepayers want to keep their bus services as economical as possible and, equally naturally, the bus users — many of whom are ratepayers, of course — want the best service possible. “Our Rideline call centre costs us $1.80 per interaction with the public. Compare that with our new services, the web, WAP and SMS, which cost us 9c per interaction. And that cost goes down as the volume goes up.”In case you remain sceptical, Darby offers another perspective: the call centre costs just under $2 million a year to operate and handles 1.4 million calls a year; the ongoing cost of the website, the WAP and SMS services combined is $60,000 a year and between them they already handle 600,000 calls annually — and the number keeps on rising, about 30% every six months. “The way it works is that you have an incremental jump in interactions when you add additional services,” says Darby. And, wait for it, you also have an incremental jump in call centre interactions. “That’s not really what we wanted but at the end of the day it is all information …” Ultimately, says Darby, it is all about tapping into the channels of your choice. Sure, you can continue to go to your bus stop to look at a timetables, but chances are that they are out of date within 24 hours of going up. And if you go direct to the web or wireless services you won’t face having to wait in a call centre queue.In the early stages of the Virtually Thr project Darby and his team formed focus groups for usability testing. The project team looked at the way students were using text messaging, WAP — although the latter remains in its infancy — and the web, as well as existing services. What they found was that bus users would walk to their nearest bus stop and wait for up to an hour for a bus. “I know I wouldn’t be too happy about my daughter waiting at a bus stop at night for up to an hour. There is a safety issue here. We also needed to improve our timetable’s accuracy.” Today there is only one source of information, all coming from the same database. It is used across all the services, including the timetables. If you are smart enough to log into the virtual channels you can get a great deal more information than a mere timetable — you can find prices, maps, travel times, travel distance, multimode transport options, carriers — and, of course, the feedback and forums are all in one place.That’s not bad for a project that was started initially without any special funding. In the end — and Darby is keen to give credit where it is due — Transfund provided the necessary cash input, which meant the ARC did not have to stretch its funds further. “Transfund has got to be acknowledged,” says Darby. “These virtual channels were a step outside their comfort zone.”The website went live in March last year. Additional services, enhancements, mapping, SMS and the WAP channels came on board later through the year.Darby says the website aimed for a clear, crisp look. Underlying that apparent simplicity lies a huge effort encompassing 450,000 land parcels, 6000 parks and reserves and 10,000 roads for starters. “You might ask, ‘Why are you introducing parks and reserves?’” says Darby. “What we are saying is that you don’t only need to get on this bus or go to that bus stop. What we are doing is connecting you to the bus stop. We are building in the walk distance to the bus stop, including shortcuts that might take you through a park or reserve. And we also put in the distance you might need to walk when you get off the bus.”Darby once again emphasises the challenges involved in all this mapping. It’s not easy, he says, to get a program to show how a bus might travel down a road. When a virtual bus comes to a virtual crossroads it needs to know whether it is travelling over an overbridge. A left or right turn in the wrong place might look good on screen but be impossible to negotiate in reality. If you want to take a right turn around a roundabout your program must know that you must turn left to go with the traffic flow. Then there are one-way roads.“For the person walking to or from a bus stop, we wanted to determine the fastest route to a particular destination. For instance, our maps include 12,000 walkways. There are more walkways than there are roads. We connected properties to the parks and reserves and walkways. Then we threw in the bus stops — about 5000 of them.”Darby says most of the maps were designed in-house by ARC GIS specialists. LINZ supplied some basic maps but could not handle the level of data needed by the project team. Landmarks on the maps included McDonald’s restaurants, Auckland Zoo, Kelly Tarlton’s, banks and railway stations. “We want people to react in the way that they see the world. Not everybody sees the world in terms of a street address. What we are doing is presenting choices.”On top of the landmarks are the timetables associated with each bus stop. Those timetables connect multiple points so that bus users can connect to different modes of transport — perhaps from a bus to a train or ferry. Finally, there are the prices for each trip. “The way it all looks is very simple, but there is a lot of work and smarts behind this,” says DarbySMS users cannot, of course, see the maps but WAP phone users can, although few people have the technology. The SMS user gets as much informnation as possible in text format. Darby makes a point of the fact that the notebook computer he is using for his web demonstration of Virtually Thr online is not a new machine. The service had to be usable for a person sitting at an older computer with a standard modem. The site features a journey planner — how to get from one point to another, what landmarks to look out for, mode of transport etc. For those who can’t spell, the system’s dictionary is very forgiving. If you are short of cash, the planner provides options that might cost a little less. As Darby looks for a suitable route to the nearest McDonald’s, the system tells him he needs to walk 370m to a bus stop to catch a bus that is arriving shortly. He has just enough time to get there. The stop nearest the restaurant will require a walk of less than a kilometre. Accompanying this information are details of cost and carriers. Another click leads to the appropriate map, with zoom included. The best route to the bus stop is shown. It includes a short stretch through a park. Just in case you get confused about things, street numbers are also shown. Little flags indicate landmarks. Pass your cursor over them and they tell you what is located in those places. There’s even a “how to” section for those who don’t know how to catch a bus …Technology has had a bit of catching up to do to get the best out of the services. For instance, when the project was started it wasn’t even possible to send SMS messages between the two telcos. WAP was still on the horizon and still has few users at this stage. Some issues remain with the telcos, although Darby is reluctant to offer details. At the time of writing he was still waiting for one telco to come back to him for an explanation on one component of its service. Darby found it easier to get the SMS services under way by going through a third party, Data Squirt, which handles integration with the Telecom and Vodafone networks. “There were quite a number of issues that needed to be worked through and still need to be worked through,” says Darby. “But the service is totally reliable. The issues are more of a philosophical nature.”It’s hard to imagine why the telcos continue to put roadblocks in the way of such services. After all, they stand to make money from them. To help Virtually Thr newbies who want to try the SMS services, Darby has introduced a funky female character to the website. She tells you what you need to do to access the SMS services and she also appears on wallet-sized cards — available at various institutions and polytechnics — with similar instructions. The SMS messages cost 30c each, which means taxpayers bear no burden for the young person’s love affair with cellphones. Darby had expected young people to use the service one or two times a week but had been surprised to find some of them using it three to four times a day. The SMS service includes the option to send messages to the helpdesk. For those who lack manners, Darby jokes that he is considering installing an abuse interpreter. Imagine a message that says “Say you’re sorry, otherwise I will suspend your service.” He’s joking, of course, but he has a pilot under way for abusers that says “Whoa …” Wherever he goes from here, he is keeping his users foremost in his mind. It’s been an exciting ride.