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Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

October 10, 2011 at 9:59 AM

One Bus Away extended, for now, with Googler help

Bus riders in the greater Seattle area have a friend in Switzerland.

That would be Brian Ferris, the University of Washington computer-science student who graduated in the summer and now works for Google, in Zurich. (He’s pictured below in his UW office in May.)

Ferris built and ran One Bus Away, a collection of phone apps that inform riders when buses are expected to arrive at their stop, using data shared by transit agencies.

His hobby morphed into a Ph.D. project and a job with Google’s Zurich office, where the search giant does much of its mapping and navigation work.

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That was great for Ferris and Google, but it left One Bus Away’s users in limbo. They continue to use the service more than 50,000 times a week, accessing it via smartphones, browsers and a dial-in system at 206-456-0609.

Fortunately, the UW has continued to run the system — on servers in the Computer Science & Engineering Department — while the school and regional transit agencies hashed out a plan.

It could have gotten sticky earlier this month. King County Metro did a major restructuring of its network Oct. 1, changing dozens of routes, adding a new rapid line and rerouting others to deal with the Alaskan Way Viaduct project.

Those changes introduced glitches in One Bus Away that needed to be fixed, even though the agencies were still negotiating who would pick up the tab for the service.


So Ferris went ahead and updated the system himself — just as he had for years at the UW — except this time he did it from Zurich.

“He’s not getting paid for it. He’s just doing it because he believes in it,” said Alan Borning, a UW computer-science professor who worked with Ferris on transit information research.

A slightly longer-term solution will be announced soon, perhaps in the next few days.

Metro, Sound Transit and Pierce Transit are working with the UW to fund One Bus Away for a year. Funding will enable the UW to hire someone to manage and update the service.

“We wanted to keep it going,” said De Meyers, a Sound Transit information technology manager who is researching and developing rider-information systems.

It’s unclear what will happen beyond the one-year contract, but Seattle-area agencies are apparently interested in a similar system being developed by a group in New York.

Called Open Trip Planner (OTP), it’s an open-source project that started in 2009 and drew in part on the work that Ferris did at the UW.

The OTP software is freely shared, but several groups charge agencies to customize, host and support the system. OTP is being tested in Portland, where the TriMet transit agency helped develop the system.

In July, OTP held a user meeting in Portland attended by Meyers, another Sound Transit representative and a King County Metro manager, according to the group’s attendance list.

An OTP presentation on its website also lists Sound Transit and King County as “prospective users” having “early conversations.”

So is One Bus Away simply being extended until OTP is fully up and running?

“We don’t know really right now,” Meyers said, adding that “we’re still in the assessment phase.”

Meanwhile, Borning and his students may continue to use One Bus Away as a platform for research purposes.

One Bus Away users may also be asked to help out.

Borning envisions a sort of crowd-sourcing approach. People with knowledge of particular routes could become “transit ambassadors” and help run the system.

(That would be a cousin to a crowd-sourced voters guide — at — that he and students are developing.)

Demand for One Bus Away continues, and it’s likely to grow over the next few years as massive road projects strangle Seattle-area traffic and put more pressure on transit agencies.

The system is also uniquely accessible, enabling even basic phones to access the same information as fancy smartphones.

Crowd-sourcing may help keep the service going, Borning said.

“On the other hand,” he added, “I don’t have another Brian Ferris who can put in 10- or 20-hours a week.”

Comments | Topics: Apps, Automotive, bus routes


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