A few days ago, online news sites such as mashable, techcrunch and gizmodo were buzzing about a new feature to the popular Transit App HopStop. Named “HopStop Live!”, the new feature is touted as a “waze for public transit”, or feedback system where users can alerts about a particular line, station, or Agency. Users have the ability to snap a photo and tie it to their post, and add tags to make sure their alerts show up in the right place. Just like with instagram, you can even multi-cast your alert to facebook and twitter with the flip of an iphone slider.
I took HopStop live for a spin this afternoon to see just what people were writing about transit in NYC. Bear in mind, many other transit apps aggregate social media that matches a transit line based on keywords or hash tags, but these entries on HopStop live were deliberately entered for the rest of HopStop’s users to see. I looked at a few lines I ride often on the NYC subway. I looked at the MTA’s feed, the Staten Island Ferry… hey, the Roosevelt Island cable car is in here? The Peter Pan bus and the IKEA shuttle are too? It’s interesting to see just how many agencies/companies there are operating transit in the region, and easy to forget that it’s more than just subways that move us.
After surfing around in this pseudo-twittersphere of transit, I felt like I was simply reading gripes. Nobody loves their commute. They are probably already pissed off… who is in a good mood on the subway platform surrounded by strangers and usually in a rush (besides fellow transitophiles who soak in every second of ridership as a visceral NYC experience.. rats, bums and all.)? But there seem to be plenty of good mixed in with the bad:
“The 3 train is ALWAYS slow as hell!!!!!!!!”
“It always takes AGES to come. The 4,5 AND even the slow #2 trains come by sooner and with greater regularity than the 3 ever does”
“Always tends to be clean”
“THIS IS A TRAIN THAT IS ALWAYS RIGHT THERE OR IS COMING. CUDOS TO WHO EVERY MAKES IT HAPPEN”
“It is pretty clean… The 3 train at least”
“When riding the 3, the ride is frequently jarring and feels as if you are on an old, wooden roller-coaster (and not in a good way)”
So, from this brief sample at the top of the list, we have 2 reports of slowness, 2 reports of cleanliness, and one report of a shaky ride, and one ALL CAPS ENTHUSIASTIC REPORT THAT IT’S ALWAYS RIGHT THERE OR COMING. What should we think? Are these really the real-time crowdsourced alerts that are meant to warn users of delayed trains and revolutionize transit riding where we still don’t have real-time data? I’m sure the real-world service alerts are mixed in there somewhere, but it seems logical that they would be the minority of posts, drowned out by people’s generalized whining about dirty platforms, rats, and panhandlers.
I’ll argue that there are a few value propositions for this sort of system. The first is it’s stated claim to let the apps users alert fellow straphangers of an accident elsewhere in the system. The MTA and other agencies are quick to get this kind of information out via social media and their machine readable service advisory feeds (which many apps make use of), but if HopStop’s users can get the word out faster, saving people precious time to make alternative arrangements, I think that’s a huge step forward. Furthermore, the feeds are segregated so you only read about the line/station you’re interested in. Where it might be difficult to filter the signal from the noise in the MTA’s system-wide twitter feed, organized feeds like the one in HopStop have the potential to show you only the information you want.
Another huge potential in this kind of service is that it might just get people buzzing about issues and lead to change. This kind of system is ripe for big data sentiment analysis, and it’s only a matter of time before we start reading about the atrocious reviews a particular station or line receives in news articles. Will that be enough to turn the heads of policymakers and transit administrators? Will they even have any incentive to respond to a long list of crowdsourced bad reviews? It’s like yelp for transit lines… but who owns the 1 train? Who is accountable for a specific station? I predict that some community organizer or journalist will soon be using this data to make a case for change.
Lastly, it’s kind of fun. Just like reading comments on youTube, people say funny things when they can rant and remain anonymous. The system is not without its trolls, such as this lone alert filed under the Peter Pan bus:
Seeing what others have written recently about the train you’re riding makes the whole transit-riding experience just a bit more personal. It’s like eagerly watching the twitter backchannel at an event. You don’t know who these people are, but you’re damn curious what they’re saying. HopStop Live! has been around all of a few days, but already appears to be well-used, at least in the NYC Subway. I am sure the developers of the app will fine-tune the service to provide the maximum benefit to riders, and we’ll start to see systems like this representing the zeitgeist of the modern straphanger.