Crowdsourcing the Silver Line commute
New app from MIT researchers gathers rider feedback to improve Boston bus service.
Crowdsourced data may soon improve commutes for Boston residents who ride the Silver Line bus.
A new smartphone initiative called QualiT, launched this month as part of a collaboration between MIT researchers and the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA), is allowing riders of the Silver Line to rate their bus trips just like passengers who use ridesharing services such as Uber and Lyft. The new app combines anonymous feedback with location and other spatial data to identify how user satisfaction relates to actual service quality. Ultimately, the aim is to provide information that can help the MBTA to improve service on this important route.
“The digital age is changing customer preferences and expectations in our urban mobility systems, introducing new mobility business models and shifting the relationship between customers and transportation service providers” says P. Christopher Zegras, associate professor of transportation and urban planning at MIT, and faculty lead for the project. “In this project we are trying to capitalize on these dynamics to create an innovative, and hopefully fun, way for the T’s users to provide real-time feedback on their travel experience through their smartphones. The T has been a great partner in moving this project forward.”
QualiT works by activating a research platform called Future Mobility Sensing (FM Sensing), developed by researchers from MIT and the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART), where Zegras is a principal investigator. The tool seeks to better understand people’s travel paths and modes by collecting anonymous location data through smartphones’ sensors (such as GPS and WiFi).
Once they have installed the free FM Sensing app, riders will be able to see their own travels displayed on a map that is visible only to them. The app will automatically prompt users to rate their Silver Line trips.
Participation is voluntary, and riders may withdraw at any point by uninstalling the app. The app does not collect personally identifiable information, and the data system is highly encrypted and secured. Data collected will be used for research and service improvement only, and will never be shared with third parties.
“This innovative app is the result of a terrific collaboration between the MBTA and MIT,” said MBTA General Manager Frank DePaola. “A critical element of our efforts to improve service is the feedback from customers who use the T regularly, and this app allows our customers to provide in-the-moment feedback as they are traveling on MBTA vehicles. If it proves successful, we’ll seek opportunities to expand it to other MBTA services.”
The project team, which includes assistant professor Jinhua Zhao of the MIT Department of Urban Planning (DUSP) and Moshe Ben-Akiva, a professor in civil and environmental engineering, is hoping for high levels of rider engagement with QualiT, which will enable the MBTA to gather a wealth of information from passengers about their experiences with the service and plan improvements.
The app’s development involved several departments and groups within MIT that study transportation and urban mobility: DUSP and its Mobility Futures Collaborative; the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering’s Intelligent Transportation Systems Lab; and SMART through its Future of Urban Mobility research group.
Zegras’ work explores the role of mobile communication and computation technologies as a new data source for estimating and validating models, as both a tool for changing behaviors within the mobility system and a way to improve citizen engagement in planning processes. He founded the Mobility Futures Collaborative as a research initiative that leverages analog and digital data collection and analysis tools to mobilize a collective intelligence toward improving mobility in a range of contexts around the world.
Working closely with Zegras was Corinna Li, a dual-degree master’s student in city planning and transportation in DUSP recently selected as one the nation’s top graduate students in transportation as part of the 2016 Eno Future Leaders Development Conference.
“We have recently seen many innovations in urban transportation in the private market,” Li says, “and we are inspired to help public transit systems leverage emerging technologies to better serve their riders.”
To participate, riders sign up via the QualiT website, download the FM Sensing app from the AppStore (Apple) or Google Play (Android), and install it on their smartphones. To encourage participation, the MBTA will give riders a chance to win a monthly pass every time they offer feedback.