Thursday, October 6, 2016

Locator system for state transport buses

Update: The solution I have advocated below already exists and is on open offer from BSNL : Location Based Services:

They have explicitly stated that this is for transport companies!

Literally the only thing needed to do is to make one public service agency speak with the other. I can't make this happen on my own : can you? Please spread this!

I've been traveling by MSRTC (Maharashtra State transport) a lot in
the past couple of months, and am seeing some opportunities for better
systems there.

Explaining the problem:

I'm focusing on one universal problem faced by commuters: waiting
period for a bus that can range from a few minutes to hours, during
which the commuter has to be alert the entire time and keep their eyes
peeled and check each and every bus that enters the stand. More than
anything else I feel this strenuous waiting time takes a high toll :
when you don't know if you might have to wait upto 3 or 4 hours also
and you can neither take rest nor do anything productive in that time.

When we ask at the enquiry desk, the only two details we get are : a)
what time the bus was "supposed" to have come; b) whether the bus has
already come and gone or not.

Compared to transit in the city, two major differences emerge :

a) The waiting period in the city is in range of minutes to
occasionally an hour which is much lesser than in rural. For people
who travel by ST daily this can amount to significant part of
productive day time lost in just waiting for the bus.

b) In city, there are still alternatives available. You can take other
buses to take you halfway and then do an auto or call a cab or
something. In rural areas, there is no alternative to the ST bus, and
there might not be any valid connection from half-way points or no
infrastructure there. If your bus got cancelled (which you'll find out
only a very long time later) you might have to halt at that place for
the night; and that place might not have suitable lodging, or might
get very unsafe after dark esp for ladies traveling alone.

Which means a service outage or inordinate delay can cause loss of
education, work or business for the day, to missing out on an
important event like a wedding or a booked train journey or a
workshop.. you name it, we miss it. There is simply too high
dependency, and too high negative consequences for an ST service to be
taken as lackadaisically as it seems right now.

Looking at the fact that an ST service serves significantly larger
area and population than city bus service, and that we have probably
under 30 total ST services in this country, I think this deserves some

Moving to the solution part:

Before GPS devices came on phones, google maps app even in Java-based
phones provided location-finding service based on which cell tower we
were hooked on to. Accuracy would be in 100s of meters, and one could
get this approx location very quickly. I understood at the time that
google's map app would send to its server the unique identifier code
of the tower, and the google server would return a latitude, longitude
and range. This would then be rendered on the phone as a large blue
circle and we would reliably be somewhere in it. The circle's radius
would vary from 100 meters in city areas to even a km or more in rural
areas. For the purpose of figuring out generally where you were in
terms of part-of-city or town or village, at the kms scale, it works.
Even now this works on my android phone when it's not trying to force
me to turn on my wifi or gps. If the phone goes out of range, then
last known location is available and reliable enough for some minutes
till it comes back in range again a few kms ahead. I understand that
mobile service providers also have this data (which phone number is
operating under which tower) and even the police routinely summons
this data to trace criminals, missing persons etc.

For state transport bus system, we don't need GPS-device accuracy of
bus location; just this tower-based location finding method could

Consider this real-life scenario: We're waiting at Mangaon bus stand
to catch a bus to Mandangad. The connecting bus is a Mumbai-Dapoli
bus. It is scheduled to come at 3pm but there is no way to tell when
it will come because of possible traffic, weather etc. On earlier days
it has come as late as 6pm also; and there have been times in the past
when the bus was cancelled for some reason.
If a system can just show the approximate location of this bus :
around which town it presently is, then we can safely predict by when
it will come. If we can see that it is at least 2 hours away, then the
passenger can without any tension go and take rest, eat, finish other
work for 2 hours instead of continuously waiting at the bus stand
checking every bus that comes in. At a busy ST stand like Mangaon,
there's a bus coming practically every minute. That's 120 bus boards
that the passenger won't have to strain to read; won't have to walk up
to to ask the driver/conductor in case the board isn't readable, if
he/she can get to know that their bus is 2 hours away.

How one might go about delivering this:

There is of course the option of installing a device carrying a sim
card in every bus, but I would suggest something much simpler and more
sustainable in the long run. Most bus drivers and conductors are
carrying a mobile phone of their own. Their phone number (both number
and a cheap phone could be given to them by ST service as work number)
could be pegged in the system to be going along so-and-so route. Given
the long ST routes, one conductor / driver likely goes on just one or
two routes in a day, and many are working on fixed routes and
schedules for a long time period, unlike city bus systems where
there's a lot of dynamic allocation happening. So this shouldn't be
too difficult. We could practically peg one mobile number to every
trip and not have to bother editing the data for months on end.

Then, just like how the police can access a phone's approx location
data from service provider, with government sanction even the ST
service can have a similar special arrangement to receive the location
of the designated mobile number and relay it on a website, which can
be accessed by a passenger via browser or even SMS-based service. I'll
advise that the ST service or mobile service provider just publish the
data in a public API / live feed and let the free market create
delivery services around it to serve commuters. Even paid SMS service
is something commuters would happily pay for to avoid waiting hours at
the bus stand.

So we can achieve this without even having to purchase / make /
install any specialized device; without even needing a smartphone with
special apps. It only needs some setting up work at a central level,
and can be operated from existing central command center of the ST
service. Maximum on-ground work could be towards ensuring the phone
stays on, which translates to providing charger connection in the bus.
That shouldn't be too difficult given that all buses do have
electrical connections for lighting.

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