Got a smartphone? If you’re in Vancouver and surrounding area covered by Translink, head out to a bus stop and look for the 5-digit number on it. Point your browser at http://thisisourstop.com and enter that bus stop number, and instantly be able to talk about that stop and what’s around it.
Bus stops are anchor points for the urban experience. They’re kind of neat when you think about them: stand at one and a giant machine will stop and give you a lift to almost any part of the city.
If the people who used a bus stop got together and talked about it, what would they say? Would they point out problems? Share tips on what the surrounding area offers? Suggest improvements or talk about the weather? Maybe all of that and more. Maybe something completely different. We’re curious to find out.
We settled on a simple writing wall for bus stops that includes some information utility, to be accessed through smartphone browsers.
On manually entering a stop number (which is turning out to be faster than a fancy-pants geo-location lookup or trying to search street addresses), we pull up basic information about the stop: cross street, routes that stop here and possibly the time of the next scheduled bus. We’ll also show a map of the local area and provide tap-throughs to Google Maps and to the official source of information for that stop via Translink’s mobile website.
With that model prototyped we found that we were not compelled to use the app very much, so we added the next scheduled time for each bus at that stop. That one change, adding utility, made it feel more natural to use at any given time when out and about.
Paired with information utility is a conversation space. Visitors can write messages up to 200 characters and attach any of four categories via friendly icons. Those categories are largely there to suggest themes that keep things light: weather, things to look for, suggestions and a kind of open category for just saying something.
We also put a premium on visual design to help make an inviting and positive space. We partnered with Sam Dal Monte to provide visual design. We’re excited to be working with Sam after admiring his independent work in rethinking transit signage in Vancouver, and his contributions made a big difference.
Sam approached the interface starting with content, and by content we mean typefaces. He researched the history of transit typefaces in Vancouver and incorporated that into his shortlist. In both the logotype and the content we tried to balance transit history with what works well on a mobile device.
From there Sam built out a visual language and style that transformed the prototype and helped us refine the interactions. We couldn’t be happier with how his work plugged into and advanced the vision.
In the background were many hours of discussing just how much we wanted to push against the norms of social networks. We ended up questioning online identity models, permanence and aggregation.
Since city life changes daily, readers will only see posts from the last few days. In the background we’ll retain the full history of posted comments (except abusive ones) and make those available by API for those wanting to do a deep dive on a specific stop. Posts can be given an up or down vote, or flagged for abuse if necessary. We think this model keeps the expectations at a good level, and prompts for less self-conscious participation.
The last thing we wanted to do was create the impression of yet another social network to join, so we tossed out the idea of user accounts or unique identities. People can add a name to their posts, but someone else might use the same name. Very few sidewalk chalk artists sign their work, and we wanted this to have that same feeling of transience and low-commitment. You don’t sign your name or show ID to use a bus stop, which is part of its democratizing feel. We wanted to mirror that access in the app.
One thing people often ask when we talk about the project is Won’t people use this for dating?
To be honest, we’d take it as a mark of success if people did try and use it for missed connections. But more seriously, we know that any read-write space can invite unwanted behaviour. To manage that we’ve worked out a way to blacklist a device for a period time, since we don’t have a regular account to remove. Our approach here emphasizes forgiveness rather than total banishment as the tool for steering bad behaviour into good.
We talked a lot about the need to bring this to a diverse audience rather than just those interested in new social technologies. To do that we’ll be putting some stickers with the URL on bus stop poles in selected spots. The hope is that this approach will bring a more diverse community from the start, rather than trying to build out from an early-adopting tech crowd.
We were thoughtful about the name, searching for something inviting and community-oriented. This Is Our Stop puts the focus on the shared ownership and investment inherent in public infrastructure.
We’re also making the code for the project open source under the MIT license. Our version works for Translink stops in and around Vancouver BC, but there is little stopping anyone from setting up their own instance by using data from their own transit service. In essence, if that municipality provides data to Google Transit, the same data should be available and work with This is Our Stop.
So our hope is that people in other municipalities will fork it and experiment with making their own bus stops more social.
Technologically, this is of course a web application that aims for speed and smooth interaction. We built on Node.js to explore the real-time possibilities of a conversation space spread out across thousands of points, and are pleased with how that turned out. If you’re looking at the comments on a stop you’ll see new comments pop up without refreshing, and in the background we have a page that lets us see comments from across the region.
Were a transit authority to take an interest in the platform, they could easily turn it into a real-time customer service channel that keeps conversations about problems tied to the location they happen at, rather than aggregated into a big river of stuff.
It’s an amazing project to work on, inspiring and challenging us in all the right ways. Once again we hit the intersection of web, mobile, social and physical world tie-ins that are our sweet spot, and even if it goes nowhere this project is a point of pride for us, and it’s connected us with a first-rate visual designer as well as people interested in transit.
It’s as good as it’s going to be without people using it, so after a few months in a quiet open beta we’re going public. Happily, a conversation with Dan Misener about Menuito led to a more involved talk about This Is Our Stop, and that led to his article in the Globe & Mail
We got a lot of great press from local and national media in the first couple weeks after launch. Locally, The Georgia Straight, 24 Hours, Vancouver is Awesome, CBC Radio and TV all ran stories and interviews. Nationally, the Canadian Press ran an article that got picked up by a number of outlets across the country. We’re hoping that press translates into interest from other cities in taking the model and the code and making their own open conversation spaces.
If you’d like some help or are interested in learning more about the project or working with us, just say firstname.lastname@example.org.
Back to Work Back to Home