“What the Bus” and Why Should I Bother? Designing For User Participation in a Public Transport Information System

What the Bus Interface

In this article, we described the design and evaluation of a mobile application to show crowd-sourced bus arrival times and other information about buses. We wanted to use the power of passengers to collect and share data on the bus network at a time when there was no real time data about bus arrival times available. To investigate this approach, we developed a mobile app called ‘What the Bus.’

Designing ‘What the Bus’

In designing What the Bus, we went through several iterations, progressively modifying the interface of the app and later adding new features based on user recommendations. Features of the app included allowing passengers to indicate whether a bus was full or empty, whether it came on time or was late, and whether it skipped a stop.

The end result was an app that allowed users to check their bus times and participate in a community of people contributing information about the bus network. The core function of the app was a list and map view of nearby bus stops and bus routes. When a user selected a bus route, they could see previous historical reports from other users stating whether the bus was late and whether it had been full or empty at a particular time. From this, passengers could get a rough idea of when their bus may appear, and whether they could get a seat.

Part of the reason for this was the empowering of passengers to make choices about their transport. If they could see a bus was going to be late or full, they might choose to take an earlier bus and get a seat on time – and end up satisfied with their journey. Without the app and the information it provided, they might be forced to get on the full bus and likely be unhappy with their trip.

User feedback

We publicly released the What the Bus app and collected data over a 44 day period from around 80 users. 10 participants were part of an in-depth deployment study, allowing us to gather qualitative and quantitative information about the app’s impact.

A number of interesting concepts came out of our in-depth study. Several participants indicated they used the information the app provided to make travel decisions, with one participant saying “I will pass on one or two buses if I know it’s always full and there’ll be another one coming soon.”

Further, it was found users enjoyed updating the app with data about the bus network – they liked contributing to the community of people helping each other out by recording bus data.

What’s next?

To be a truly useful transport app, a larger user base is needed (so more data is fed into the community). Further, we are interested in how the app may be able to assist transport providers. Data collected through the What the Bus app, including bus congestion and patronage levels, can help providers understand how and why congestion occurs and help them improve their transport systems.

The article was presented at the Digital Cities workshop in Munich:
Chahine, T; Tomitsch, M (2013): What the bus and why should I bother: Designing for user participation in a public transport information system. Digital Cities 8 (2013), Munich, Germany.

Download the authors’ version of the paper.