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New Train Brain app should ease life for light rail riders

Entrepreneurs go with their gut when they see a need and have the skills or moxie to fill it with some innovative technology or approach. When developer Andy Atkinson, a light rail rider, found himself uncertain as to whether his train was on time or when others might be available if wanted to catch an earlier one, he knew that the GPS-enabled iPhone in his hand was the perfect device to deliver an application that would fix this problem ... and he had the skills to create it.

Enter Train Brain. This $1.99 iPhone application (available here in the iTunes store) is for Twin Cities Metro Transit light-rail riders. You can walk around with a paper schedule in your pocket or pull up a PDF of that schedule on your iPhone, but with a couple of taps, Train Brain can tell you when the next train is coming and how much the fare will cost as well as offer a countdown to the train's arrival.

I had a chance to talk with Andy and find out more about this guy and why he created the application. He told me the back story, described in a self-deprecating way the limited nature of his app and noted that it wasn't "complicated."

I'd beg to differ, since "perfect is the enemy of good," and what he's already delivered meets the need squarely and is a tool that will delight light rail riders.

Turns out Andy is a web application developer, Objective-C coder and has the technical chops to put out this first Train Brain version and to keep it going (he has lots of ideas and next steps in mind for it). I'm sure he'll talk more about his new gig with Tightrope Media Systems (a recent Minnedemo presenter) and the great work they're doing in digital signage and broadcast when he's able to do so.

One of the things that came up in our conversation was the design of the website and application. I've yet to meet a solid developer who'd admit to possessing any modicum of strength in graphic design. Andy was quick to point out that the website and application design I was praising (as clean, functional and fresh) was done by Nate Kadlac Design and Nate deserved the praise.

The only thing that came to mind after talking to Andy was this: Metro Transit ought to buy this app and get behind it. With the continued rollout of light rail in the Twin Cities, and likely delays as the system expands, there is no question riders will need better tools to manage their ridership instead of just a PDF of a paper schedule or, God forbid, having to carry a schedule around in your pocket.

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Comments (8)

Actually, better yet, instead of only supporting the small number of iphone users (remember, smartphones are 3% of the worldwide cellphone market) they should invest in better web development and an SMS gateway. Some cities are placing unique codes at every stop so a quick sms with the code and the route # gives instant information. onebusaway.org in seattle is a great example of what we could be doing here.

Metro Transit does offer something like this for the entire system through their NexTrip feature. I haven't used it outside of toying with it on the computer, but it seems rather inelegant and clumsy. Perhaps someone could develop a slick, user-friendly app or something that can access this information that Metro Transit has ever-so-conveniently made available already.

If you visit www.metrotransit.org with any mobile browser, it will offer to redirect you to their NexTrip site, from which you can get the next few busses/trains for *any* Metro Transit (and suburban bus companies) bus/train at any stop, for free. It doesn't have a pretty IPhone app interface, but has much more useful information.

SMS infrastructure with codes at stops seems like a useful addition to bus availability info.

Hello everyone. I'm Andy Atkinson, the developer of the app. We're considering ways to expand the app, please add your suggestions publicly on the feedback forum (see website), or feel free to email me directly. I've used NexTrip and it is useful, however it doesn't know about your current location or time, and frankly is too slow to use on a daily basis as a "utility application" in my opinion. Train Brain is minimally featured but requires very little user input, a couple of taps, I think there is value in that and don't have plans to change that aspect. Regarding available transit data, Metro Transit does not offer a formal API to application developers at this time. Please write them and encourage them to do so. Certainly more Metro Transit mobile applications (including other platforms like Android) will be developed when that happens. Thanks!

John Siqveland from Metro Transit marketing: I like that Train Brain is an iPhone app that uses the GPS functionality of the iPhone to locate the device relative to a station location, but I think it's important to clarify that Train Brain does not provide "real-time" information about Hiawatha Light Rail arrivals or departures. It provides schedule information only - "real-time" customer information is not currently available for the Hiawatha Line. Train Brain uses a convention of "XX min" for schedule information - in other words, when you read "4 min" in the app it means "the train is scheduled at this stop in 4 minutes".

Real-time information on all Metro Transit bus routes has been available since July of 2008 via web, mobile, and a telephone interface and is called NexTrip. It uses a convention of "HH:MM" (in red) to display schedule information and "XX min" (in black) for real-time information for all transit routes in the region. All bus routes Metro Transit operates provide departure predictions based on the current time and the physical location of the vehicle. NexTrip has recently been reformatted with a much friendlier interface for iPhone users, but is available through the device's browser at metrotransit.org and (obviously) not as an app. Many of the features of NexTrip were borne of user feedback - Metro Transit welcomes feedback on the application through a feedback link. Our online schedules have also recently been reformatted and are now available directly on web pages and not only as PDFs.

Although not an API, The Metropolitan Council's DataFinder site has plenty of data for developers to work with (including schedules for Hiawatha LRT): http://www.datafinder.org/.

john.siqveland@metc.state.mn.us

Hi John. I'm happy to see Metro Transit active, I have emailed asking for data and describing that I'm developing an application and this email has gone unanswered. I also found datafinder through a friend and not through Metro Transit's website. This information should be published on the Metro Transit website so other application developers are aware of it. Datafinder data becomes out of date, which is currently the case (as of today, from my research). Significant route changes took effect September 12th and I did not see a data update following that (for the bus routes that changed). Route 55 (hiawatha LRT line) apparently did not change. Developers need access to the database or need to be provided current snapshots of the data in order for innovative apps on a variety of platforms to be built.

I am not sure why you felt it necessary to call out the fact the data is not "real-time?" The words "real-time" or "realtime" appear nowhere on this page or on the train brain website. The label in the application says "minutes remaining" and the FAQ on the website discusses how this is schedule data from Metro Transit. Of the people that have provided feedback to me, no one has mistook the data for being real-time. If GPS data is on-board trains and buses (which I've heard rumors of being the case), this data should be exposed publicly. This would be very valuable.

I have been recommending NexTrip to those looking for route planning or bus support. I'd like to work with Metro Transit and hope you or someone from there can contact me directly. Thanks.

Andy -

I'll head over to your web site, find your contact information and shoot you a note.

Datafinder is linked from metrotransit.org here: http://www.metrotransit.org/aboutUs/linktous.asp The 8/11 update represents current schedules - schedule data is finalized prior to service changes going into effect.

My comment on real-time was to clarify the reporting here: "...found himself uncertain as to whether his train was on time...". After this was published, I was contacted by NexTrip users asking how it was possible that Train Brain could offer real-time data for the Hiawatha Line when NexTrip did not.

There is a very interesting conversation taking place around the country RE: "Who owns transit data?" Here is one article that looks at the question: http://news.cnet.com/8301-19882_3-10315749-250.html

Thanks,
John

John- that is very interesting! Having re-read the article I understand why your clarification was necessary and think it was appropriate. It is unfortunate that the miscommunication resulted in some people being confused. @Steve perhaps the article should be re-worded to avoid future confusion. Indeed Train Brain uses schedule data and does not have any real-time data access. The scenario I described to Steve in a short interview we had---was one where I'd be walking to a train station and wondering how many minutes I had until the train arrived, so I wouldn't get there just as it was pulling away. Since the trains generally run very precisely (verified this in testing), the margin of error is typically a minute or less off from schedule data, and it is "as if" the data is real-time, but it most certainly *is not*. So I could adjust my walking pace to make the train. :)

As far as data ownership, I'll check out the discussion. This is interesting. Certainly Apple sells a lot of iPhones and the Google Maps (and the transit data that came in 2.0 of the OS) was a big part of why I bought one. My initial reaction is the data should be public and the labor and IT costs associated with producing that data should be part of the Metro Transit budget. What I do know is the data was provided to Google and as an individual developer I feel I should have equal access to it. I'm very happy to see the datafinder site, it is a good start towards an official API. With the official API and database server hosted by Metro Transit, I wouldn't have to run my own for Train Brain. Thanks!