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The social commuter

The best way of getting from point A to point B in the city could soon be through a social app.

The social commuter

(Illustration: Ajay Thakuri)

Can Facebook or Twitter help you reach your office quicker? Well, only marginally, perhaps, if you follow the tweets of Traffline Delhi, Bengaluru or Mumbai that alert you in real-time to road blocks. But a new generation of social apps are being tested by city administrations as well as private players to make commuting a faster and happier experience.

Take Superhub, a European co-funded project which collects urban movement data in real time and then does some smart matchmaking between transport providers and consumers so that the best possible routing decisions can be taken in a city. It's piloting this project in three test sites - Barcelona (Spain), Milan (Italy) and Helsinki (Finland).

This is how it works. At the back end, data will pour in from cab aggregators, bus networks, and all other transport providers, and fed into an app. At the front end, in a couple of clicks, customers can take real-time decisions on how to plan their route.

Companies like Xerox are involved in researching and developing such apps. Says Manish Gupta, Director, Xerox Research Centre India, and Vice President, Xerox Corporation: "What we are working on is an overall urban mobility solution, where, as a citizen, when you want to go from point A to point B, it will give you the best possible option in terms of cost, speed and environment friendliness." The cheapest option suggested could even be multi-nodal - a taxi half way, a bus part of the way and so on. "Over a period of time, the app will learn about your preference, and as it discovers that you invariably choose the environment-friendly option, it will show you more of that option rather than the cheap or fast routes."

Gupta says Xerox is also researching concepts of ride sharing using social media. "Once you have declared you are open to sharing a ride with your friend and you make your social network available, the underlying software can figure out who else in your network is taking a ride in the same direction and hook you up."

For cities that open up their public transport data to app developers, the cost savings promise to be enormous. McKinsey has even put a figure to it, estimating that the total economic value of open data in transport could be between $720 billion and $920 billion globally.

Helsinki is, in fact, getting so ambitious with the urban mobility on demand solution it is developing, knitting up taxi services, buses, cycles on hires and ferries, that it feels there will come a time when citizens will not need to own a private car at all. There are apps being developed where commuters can not only plan their journeys but also pay for it through a universal payment gateway.

If that sounds too good to be true, then check out this crowdsourcing Street Bump project flagged off by the Mayor's office in Boston to improve the city roads. Volunteers have to download the Street Bump mobile app - when they drive around the city their mobile phone sensors register bumps felt on roads and transmit the information to the Mayor's office. If three or more bumps are reported from a location, the city will send a team to look at it and fix any potholes! Easy commutes and smooth rides could one day be an urban utopia powered by social apps!

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