Late last year an article in Govtech detailed the work Georgia Tech students did to create an on-demand transit app for their university. We deeply admire the incredible success these students had in creating a workable app in a short time (especially as our product has a similar origin).
It’s easy to understand why such an endeavor would strongly appeal to college and university administration. Integrating the building of an on-demand app into a course curriculum is a fantastic way for students to obtain valuable real-life experience. These creatives are part of a new generation who have keenly innovative ideas and an understanding of what their peers want, and they are also likely to be experienced campus commuters. In addition, many universities have a built-in technical workforce in the form of IT students with the know-how to build an app. Allowing students at the university to develop a homegrown solution for tracking and requesting rides can keep costs low, especially desirable when budgets are limited.
However, money is never the only consideration; there are many other reasons it might not be ideal to build a software platform in-house when third-party software solutions already exist. If you are thinking of tasking students with building a transit app, here are a few things to consider first:
What requirements do you have when it comes to transportation?
Be sure your students are aware of legal requirements agencies must offer, such as accessibility, and make sure those needs are accommodated appropriately. If students do not take the time to ensure such needs are considered when they build the software, some riders may have a poor experience, or feel excluded, and it may be difficult to make changes after the app is live.
Is there a phase two?
Consider the possibility that a system developed as a student project could include shortcuts and workarounds that allow it to be delivered on time, but ultimately lead to high levels of technical debt. Coding an application from scratch can be an exciting student project; however, debugging and refactoring that app won’t likely appeal to the students (or staff) who inherit it. To address this, you might need to create a formal “phase two,” so that you can consider configurability, scalability and enhancement. For example, it may be difficult to get new stops or service areas added to campus routes if they were not in the initial scope of the project. As the app ages and requirements continue to change, you’ll need a plan to continue to support it with the understanding and knowledge base to manage this upkeep.
Is there documentation?
Without complete technical documentation, subsequent developers will have a difficult time continuing to support the application, so be sure that’s part of your initial project requirements. Consider who might be able to support and update any third-party tools that are used to develop the software. You will want to identify technical resources (staff or other students) your university has to support the solution after the students and staff who built it graduate or leave. Also, find out if your campus IT department can support a homegrown solution, and confirm that it meets ongoing security, accessibility, and other requirements.
How secure is your system?
System security goes hand-in-hand with the security of your ridership. Not only do you want to put safeguards in place to comply with FERPA, but you also want to ensure your rider information is not vulnerable to outside attacks. Be sure you have the resources on campus to meet those requirements and maintain them over time.
What kind of reporting does the system provide?
Reporting provides valuable data but can sometimes be overlooked when developing an application. University administration can use reports to improve the design of their services, tell them where the rider need is, and help them staff accordingly. You will want to establish a method of displaying data generated by the application in a digestible format. Consider also how student data will be protected to meet FERPA requirements, and how long historical data will be kept.
What platforms or 3rd party providers should you work with?
Whether cloud-hosted or on-premise, the application will require servers capable of supporting large volumes of user requests at peak times. While a homegrown application may be able to scale when cloud-hosted, the same may not be true of on-premise installations. In either case, the application will require ongoing engineering and customer service support as well as user training for drivers, so be sure to address those items in your project plan.
You may also find opportunities to enhance the service further with partnerships that allow for your riders to get the best experience possible. Be sure you plan for ongoing support from partners that understand their requirements, including service level agreements, particularly within their respective app stores.
Our origin story is not dissimilar from Georgia Tech’s, and we will always advocate for innovation and for the power and prowess of every new generation. Experience tells us that creating an on-demand transportation solution is a complex project that takes many years, extensive customer feedback, and long-lasting and robust agency support.
Your university puts thoughtful consideration into student and staff safety, housing, course curriculum, and all aspects of campus life, so if you are considering creating your own transit app, we encourage you to have ongoing conversations with students and staff as well as with experienced transit agencies.
Or, since we’ve already done all of this work, reach out to us today to learn more about TransLoc’s OnDemand solution and how it could support your campus.