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Tardy school buses? There's an app for that

Posted by Marjorie Pritchard  January 10, 2012 04:17 PM

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By Francisca Rojas and David Luberoff

With the onset of winter, the persistent problem of tardy school buses in Boston is about to get worse. In addition to being late, students now will be waiting for those buses in the cold, in the dark, and sometimes in rain, sleet or snow.

Some help is on the way in the form of a new smart phone app. But more could easily be provided at a very low cost if the Boston Public Schools take a page out of the MBTA’s book and make it easy to get data on which buses are late and when they are going arrive at specific stops.

To BPS’s credit, only about 12 percent of all school buses – about 70 routes in all – consistently are late, down from over half of all buses when school started in the fall. However, the problem likely will worsen in winter if piles of plowed snow will further narrow Boston’s already cramped streets.

Wouldn’t it be great if students, parents, guardians, and educators could find out if a particular bus was going to be late and when it was likely to arrive?

In fact, there’s already an app for that called "Where's My School Bus?" Built for Boston by a young software developer working with the city Office of New Urban Mechanics through the Code for America fellowship program, the program is accessible through a smart phone or a computer connected to the Internet. BPS currently is testing it with three parent groups and soon will roll it out to the current students and their families.
While this is step in the right direction, BPS can and should go further. In particular, BPS should make information about its buses available to people who have only regular cell phones, land lines, or no phones at all. To do so, BPS should learn from the MBTA, which has made information about the location of its buses and trains available to programmers and application developers.

As a result of this “open data” policy, there now are over 30 different ways to find out when an MBTA bus will arrive at a specific stop. This information is available not only via smart phone and computers but also via text messages, homemade digital signs, and old-fashioned land lines.

Based on our research on the impact of the MBTA’s efforts and similar initiatives undertaken by other major U.S. transit agencies, we believe an “open data” strategy at BPS would produce three important benefits.

• Less waiting: people who use various applications will spend less time waiting outside for their bus.

• Better information: by creating competition among various applications, opening data for developers improves the quality of apps and web sites people use to find out when a particular bus is going to arrive.

• Improved service: by giving users the information they need to hold providers accountable, the open data approach should lead to improvements in service.
There is a legitimate concern about giving everyone access to information about when a particular school bus is going to arrive at a particular stop. We think this fear is overblown.

First, transporting students in bright yellow buses that travel the same route every day already makes that information available to anyone who wants it. Second, any potential harm is far outweighed by the benefits of not having kids wait for buses in unpleasant and sometimes dangerous winter weather. Finally, it may be possible to address some concerns by requiring that users register with the school department.

In short, opening up the school bus data is a low-cost opportunity to marshal civic innovation and entrepreneurship to improve a vital public service.

Francisca Rojas is research director at the Transparency Policy Project at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. David Luberoff is executive director of Harvard’s Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston.

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