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Chicago Urban Scouts Reimagine Transportation for the "Mother of All Transit Apps"

Most public transit apps aren't that great. A social innovation firm in Chicago wants to create the best one yet—by crowdsourcing the design.

“Public transportation doesn’t begin when you get on a train,” says Chicago-based engineer and designer Sara Aye. “It begins when you choose transit instead of another mode.” She believes passengers need more than just maps and departure times to help them navigate public transit. How we chose to get around is affected by everything from the weather, to traffic, to our own personal schedules. While a deluge of apps has risen up to fill the information void for public transit users in cities around the world, according to Sara and her husband George, the duo behind social design firm Greater Good Studio, not very many are doing a good enough a job.

In response, they’re using Kickstarter to raise funds for “the mother of all transit apps” for Chicago. The project, called New Tools for Public Transit, promises to be a more holistic approach to accessing the mass of information needed to make public transportation more user friendly. Gearing up for the research phase, they plan to cull the knowledge of Chicago’s transit system from the brains of those who know it best—daily passengers—through a series of workshops and activities in the field. The final product will be an app that’s not just crowdfunded but crowd-designed as well.

In Chicago the need for basic information is real; no tool other than Google Maps has connected the city’s train schedule with the bus schedule to make for one easy-to-use guide to multi-modal trips. But even Google doesn’t use realtime information. “It’s not information that you can trust from the standpoint of time,” Sara says. (She adds that Apple is axing Google Maps from its next release of iOS, which means the next iPhone won’t have Google Maps built in.) Plus a new administration led by Mayor Rahm Emanuel is more tech-savvy, according to George, and has made it easy for web developers to access city data from a central repository.

“This wouldn’t simply be a tool to tell you when your next bus or when your next train is going to arrive,” elaborates Sara. “We think there’s an opportunity to assist riders from beginning to end.” She and George, who's a former lead designer for the Chicago Transit Authority and IDEO, cite the potential of untapped troves of data yet to be connected with real-time arrival and departure information. Everything from information on stroller and wheel chair-friendly routes, to knowing the exact weather conditions at the point of departure, to accumulated financial savings from ditching the car, to suggested coffee pit stops along the morning commute. Or perhaps the app could wake a passenger up right before his stop, or integrate with someone’s calendar to figure out how to navigate from one errand to the next.

The possibilities are fairly endless, and according to the Ayes’, it’s a matter of seeing what the public wants and needs. That’s why their Kickstarter-centric approach is so important; it’s a strategy to not only raise funds, but to build a community of supporters who feel connected to the project. Those who donate $25 will join the team as an “Urban Scout,” and can help with the research stage of the project collecting qualitiative data according to a series of research tasks, like helping a lost tourist by giving directions or interviewing a bus driver. Give $300 and become a member of Design Chicago’s inner circle, an “Urban Icon” who will help synthesize some of the research over the course of two workshops and get the chance to beta test the app. The project needs $125,000 to get funded.

“By involving lots of people early on, we can actually create a new model for civic engagement,” says George, rather than just complaining about a problem. “There’s bound to be some amazing ideas that Sara and I could never come up with. We see the city as an amazing resource for solutions as much as it is for identifying problems.”

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