Silicon Valley Watcher - Former FT journalist Tom Foremski reporting from the intersection of technology and media

Neccesity Is The Mother Of Invention - Popular Portland iPhone App

Posted by Tom Foremski - August 8, 2011

By Intel Free Press

Andy Wallace remembers clearly what life was like living in Portland, Oregon before he had the 'Take Me Home' button on his iPhone's PDX Bus app.

Eight years of commuting to work some 250 miles each week had Wallace often sprinting from his public light rail stop in order to catch the right city bus. Relying on quick feet and good timing, he would have to make what he calls "a perfect storm of connections" or else get stuck taking the long way home.

"I have about 1 minute to catch my bus," said Wallace. "I wanted to know if I had to jump off at the train and run to catch the bus, or not."

Wallace knew there had to be a better, smarter way. So he created an app for his iPhone and submitted it to the iTunes Store.

That was back in 2008.

Today PDX Bus is in its 6.0 version. It has become Wallace's gift that keeps giving as he breathes new life into the app, refining it through 15 iterations so far. He even changed it from a closed to open-source app and recently won two awards from CivicApps, a Portland area-based organization that encourages citizens to actively participate in local government.

According to the iTunes store description, PDX Bus "was developed as a volunteer effort to provide a service for TriMet riders, the developer has no affiliation with TriMet, AT&T or Apple."

What it doesn't say is that the developer is an Intel employee who does all this in his spare time. Intel has over 15,000 employees in Oregon, many of whom volunteer and contribute to various other projects in the community. But Wallace's App may be one of the more unique contributions.

"I have a problem with lost weekends fiddling with the app instead of doing yard work," Wallace confessed. "I have to stop myself, really. If I have a new idea, it can take over evenings and weekends until it's done."

This labor of love has become an essential tool for iPhone-carrying commuters who swear by it.

PDX Bus is "a must for any Portlander," wrote Amy Wink in a review posted in the iTunes Store.

Another reviewer, Jennifer Rienella, wrote: "I really don't care about getting my [driver's] license back thanks to this app!"

"In an era of service cuts and changing schedules, Wallace is a digital folk hero," wrote The Oregonian earlier this year.

That's quite a distinction for anyone living in Portland, a city known as much for its savory microbreweries as for its Internet-savvy culture inspired by geek engineers and hip marketers.

Wallace, 40, is an Oxford University graduate who moved from London to Portland about a decade ago after landing a job in Intel's LAN Access Division.

"It helped having my co-workers as beta testers," said Wallace.

At Intel he also learned how to manage the open-source software licensing process, which he says can be complex.

"You practically have to be a paralegal to know how to walk through the minefield of rules," he said.

Wallace built the PDX Bus app in 2weeks during the 2008 Olympics, when he needed something to do during events he didn't like watching.

It was during a period of time when it was becoming popular and easier to build apps for the iPhone.

"I was fiddling around when I noticed that TriMet had developed a mobile Web page with an open Application Programming Interface (API) and thought, 'Perfect, I'll use that to write an iPhone app!'"

TriMet was the first transit agency in the nation to openly share its schedule and arrival data with third-party developers, according to the Oregonian.

Schedules and live tracking data from TriMet are shared publicly online, allowing commuters to know up to the minute when and where to catch the next bus or train.

That TriMet API is funneling through the Internet hordes of live data, which is constantly coming from the 52-mile MAX light rail system with 85 stations, 79 bus lines with over 7,000 bus stops and the 14.7-mile WES Commuter Rail. A Linux-based backend computer system powers the data transmission, according to Wallace.

Today on the TriMet App Center, PDX Bus app is one of 38 free and commercial mobile apps using TriMet'sopen data API.

"When you sign up for TriMet's API, they give you a key that permits only 20,000 users a day," said Wallace. "But last summer they told me that my app kept breaking the daily limit."

TriMet raised the limit for PDX Bus to accommodate 120,000 users each day, an indication of how popular the application has become to people in the Portland Metropolitan Area, which has a population of nearly 2.3 million people.

Portland was recently ranked #5 in the U.S. News and World Report's 10 Best Cities for Public Transportation. The city was praised for providing "riders with a variety of travel options, including buses, light rail, commuter rail, streetcars, and an aerial tram."

Public transportation is a way of life for many people in Portland. It's also a source of civic pride. Last year, public buses and trains travelled 500,000 miles and stopped nearly 1 million times to pick up passengers each week, according to TriMet.

"I use this app multiple times daily to evaluate my commute options," posted PDX Bus app reviewer "Portland Flier" in the iTunes Store.

PDX Bus integrates lots of useful features. The Take Me Home button uses GPS, Google Maps and TriMet's live data to find the best way home from where every a commuter is around Portland. Favorite Trips can be bookmarked and saved, which allows them to be accessible even when an iPhone loses its cell tower signal.

The idea for one of the simplest and possibly most useful features came from Wallace's boss at Intel

The Night Visibility Flashing Light button at the bottom of the app is designed for easy use at night by riders to signal bus drivers to stop and pick them up.

"I had to do that one," he laughed. "But it's actually one of the most famous features."

"Somebody told me that they use the Flashing Light every evening to scare the cats so they don't run out the door when she gets home," chuckled Wallace.

There's also Rider Alert, something that can help out-of-towners know when they've arrive at an unfamiliar stop. It's also helping people get some shut eye.

"I've been waiting for someone to add a GPS proximity alarm to a transit app for a year now," wrote Joshua Linden-Levy in the comment section on iTunes. "This is awesome, now I can nap on the train!"

Wallace says that the Trip Planning feature took the app to a new level of usefulness, allowing people to plan ahead so the travel details were ready at the touch of a button.

Shake the device and arrival times are refreshed.

"When I'm going downtown, I can quickly check to see if I have time for a coffee," said Wallace in a video interview with Good. "You can quickly decide if you can get a coffee or have to run to the bus."

Wallace is surprised that people liked using the PDX Bus app even though TriMet has a website optimized for mobile browsers. He's even more surprised by the amount of suggestions and feedback he gets from friends, co-workers and people who share on Twitter @PDXBus and on the PDX Bus Facebook Fan Page.

"I get a lot of feedback, and it's mostly from people asking if I can create an app for their city," he said. "But usually other cities don't have the backend technology needed to support an app like PDX Bus."

What about an Android version? That's another common question Wallace hears.

"I just don't have the time," he said. "Android requires a very different programming language. I don't have anything against Android. I just don't have the enthusiasm to do it again. The same goes for MeeGo and Intel's own AppUp store. "I just can't muster the enthusiasm now," he said.

With mixed feelings, Wallace says that PDX Bus has been taking a lot of his time.


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