Recap of our SF crowdsourcing experiment

Our month as the backup QB for MUNI real-time data

February 23, 2017

Last month, when MUNI announced that its real-time arrival predictions were temporarily offline, one of our users asked if we could help:

Just like that, we launched crowdsourced real-time in San Francisco.

We’d been preparing for a moment like this. For the last year, we’ve been building the world’s first (functional) crowdsourced transit tracker. Why? Many cities (like our hometown of Montreal) still don’t have any real-time transit data. Other cities (like San Francisco) have real-time data, but coverage can be spotty, and vehicle locations infrequently updated.

Our data drinks Red Bull for breakfast…
…but transit agency data wakes up in a drunken stupor

Our plan was to roll out crowdsourcing to cities without any real-time, and then, gradually, to cities like SF that already have real-time. Well, the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry. When AT&T pulled the plug on their old 2G networks (on which MUNI’s tracking depended) we were being asked to turn on crowdsourcing while MUNI updated their hardware.

We were already seeing some success in Montreal (our first crowdsourced city), so we said, why the hell not?

Two’s a party, but a hundred’s a crowd. (Crowdsourcing in MTL)

Here’s what happened when we launched SF:

Day 1:

Day 2

Quickly, but smoothly.

Since January, we’ve been crowdsourcing MUNI transit departures. However, MUNI has done a great job fixing their real-time tracking more quickly than expected, so today we’ve decided to turn off crowdsourcing for SF — although it’s still piping along marvelously in NYC, as well as cities in Quebec and British Columbia.

We had a lot of internal debate on the team: should we turn crowdsourcing off, even though MUNI’s real-time tracker was working again? The plan had always been to shut it down once MUNI was back online (until we were ready to have both trackers rolling at once). While we tried to find a quick solution, we’re erring on the side of caution by turning it off for now. Here’s our rationale:

Reasons to keep crowdsourcing in SF
The N is poppin’!
Reasons to put crowdsourcing on hold in SF

Deferring to MUNI’s real-time predictions feels like the best choice for our riders in SF… for now. We’ll obviously be perfecting our crowdsourced real-time tracker in all the cities where “good enough” real-time doesn’t exist (like Montreal, Victoria, and NYC’s lettered subway lines) so that when we re-launch in SF (and everywhere else), everything will be perfect.

Our riders swingin’ about in the concrete jungle (40% of A/J trips crowdsourced at the peak!)

SF has validated our hunch that crowdsourcing is a viable (and hyper-accurate) way of collecting transit data. With 10% of users helping us crowdsource, and up to 45% of trips being crowdsourced on some lines, we couldn’t have imagined a better first month.

But while we’re pleased, we’re not complacent. We know that in order for crowdsourced data to properly complement (and compete) with agency-provided data, it has to be available for 100% of lines, 100% of the time. Thankfully, our crowdsourcing chefs are cooking up a bunch of cool new features that will make it easier to improve real-time data (and more addicting to share it.)

There are lots of hard problems yet to be solved. We’re confident that we can do it. But we still need all the help we can get. So shoot us your resume!

Cya soon San Francisco.

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