An app for rating public transport in real time

Month-long tests of the new app will begin today in partnership with Transports
Month-long tests of the new app will begin today in partnership with Transports Lausannois (tl). ©Alain Herzog/EPFL

EPFL researchers have developed a smartphone app for passengers to evaluate their experience in real time and view other users’ ratings. It will be tested this fall by Lausanne’s public transport authority.

Getting useful feedback from users is often a complex undertaking, especially when it comes to public transport. Social media may have given people a forum, but their comments are often too fragmented, infrequent or heated to have any practical value. EPFL researchers have now come up with an app that public transport authorities can use to survey passengers in real time through a series of interactive questions. Month-long tests of the new app - called Urban Mobility by Me, or UrbyMe - will begin today in partnership with Transports Lausannois (tl), the Lausanne region’s public transport authority.

"The advantage of real-time surveys is that we can get an instantaneous snapshot of the user and ask the right question at the right time," says Fernando Simas, a researcher in EPFL’s Urban Sociology Laboratory. This app makes it possible to reach a larger number of people at a lower cost, as the researchers have successfully applied new digital tools to survey methodology.

Qualitative data

Users have to download the app on their smartphone and then create a profile. The app automatically detects the phone’s geolocation data, which is not used until all personal information has been removed. When they are on the metro, the users receive two sets of four questions - one set at the start of their trip and one at the end - in the form of notifications. The questions are grouped by topic, including comfort, the weather, customer service, safety, payment, accessibility and how they passed the time on the metro. For example, UrbyMe will ask "What‘s the weather like’" and will offer several responses in the form of icons. "Are you seated?" If so: "Are you comfortable?" If not: "Why not?" And the users can choose from a list of answers.

"For transport operators, knowing where the user gets on and off the metro is essential, since that information can help them fine-tune their services," says Dominic Villeneuve, the project’s co-designer. This innovative approach caught the attention of the Lausanne transport authority, which commissions an independent entity to run surveys for it on a regular basis.

UrbyMe’s strength lies in its ability to gauge the user’s experience in qualitative terms as well. "We developed the questions together with the transport authority, to ensure we covered the main points of interest for them," says Villeneuve. The tests, on the m1 and m2 metro lines, will start on 22 October following the fall break for local schools. They will last a month, during which participants will receive notifications when they take the metro, but no more than once every 30 hours. They hope that around 1,000 people will agree to participate.

Survey results for all to see

Unlike most data that people generate, the information provided to UrbyMe has a specific purpose. The users know exactly who will receive the data, what will be done with it and how and why it is being collected. "This gives users an opportunity to share their opinion and be heard. They will also get feedback in return: the results of the satisfaction survey will also be published on a website," says Simas.

If this round of tests is successful, Simas and Villeneuve plan to start a company to market their app. "UrbyMe could measure the user experience in other fields besides transports - such as at stores, at the airport or for service providers." Eventually, the two researchers hope to provide a new methodology for origin-destination surveys.