tech tuesday: RAT attack

Mobile apps are all the rage. comScore and Forrester’s reports on installs and usage for 2011 were quite extraordinary and it is exciting to see the world change right before our eyes. Only a few short years ago most people carrying a mobile device primarily used it for talk-and-text functions with Blackberry holding the lead on mobile data through email delivery and browsing was still a clunking experience between poorly designed browsers and sluggish network speeds. Now look at us. Multi-connected with true multi-media devices (in plural) at wireless speeds that for those of us who remember make us laugh all that much more at our old 14.4 modems that struggled to dial in on a land line.

The app is nothing new. Palm thrived on them back in the day with the Pilot as anyone that owned one remembers with mixed emotion. The range of what modern apps can do though is astounding. They can waste our time or help us save time. Add to our frustrations or alieviate some of our must mundane and monotonous tasks. Often times at the same time.

Personally, I’m a very pragmatic app person. I don’t have many games at all (Word Drop, Unblock, Trism and other brain strain type of things). If you stroll through the home screen on my Android powered device and you’ll find the usual communications (messaging, mail, IM), organization (calender, evernote, ES File), the settings shortcut, camera and, of course, for me the calculator. On one side there’s my news (NYTimes, TED) and social (Twitter, Facebook, WordPress) and on the other there’s transportation (Maps, Anystop MTA, NJT, Taxi locator).

It is actually in that last section today I found something very intriguing to explore. RAT (Report a Taxi) is an interesting use of technology that seemless connects a passenger to the TLC (NY Taxi and Limousine Commission).

Anyone who ever rode a Yellow Cab in NYC (or worse a livery cab!) probably has a horror story about at least one of their rides (or attempts at a ride as the case may be). Cabbies who don’t have change or refuse credit cards, ones that take the long way or intentionally drive to catch the lights red, ones who refused to go to your actual destination because it was “too far away” or turned you down because you looked “wrong,” and of course, ones who took off with your stuff still in the trunk or back seat before you could get them out. Drivers who undertake these shady and oft-times blatantly illegal tactics knew they were essentially free to do so because the reporting mechanism was so onourous that the overwhelming majority of under-served riders never were able to report their criminal acts in the first place.

It is not that the NYPD and TLC weren’t up to the challenge of enforcing the laws but by the time you were able to report the offending driver you forgot all of the useful information for catching them. You had to look up the number on line to call and complain, or search the website for the right form, then fill out it with information you more than likely didn’t know you should have or had forgotten by the time you got to report it.

RAT alleviates much of this problem. The simple, straight forward application syncs directly with the TLC’s online reporting mechanism, displaying in five easy steps how to report an offending medallion. Real-time

Will it suddenly shaddy tactics by drivers? Probably not. Abuse occurs even under the strictest of controls. The app isn’t about changing driver culture it is about empowering the rider. The app elegantly does just that, allowing dissatisfaction (or satisfaction, but I seriously doubt many people will ever file props to a driver) to be known. If this helps change driver culture in the long run, great, and that would be a win for both the majority of medallions that are quality drivers and all consumers, but the point is less virtuosic for now.

Will abuse occur? Sure. Some riders will, of course, take a vindictive approach even though the driver for all intents and purposes was probably in the right. That’s not the applications fault, that something that the TLC will have to deal with and vet and investigate the complaints accordingly.

The app is a facilitator that ultimately holds the TLC and drivers responsible for something oft-under reported problems that continue to frustrate riders. Which begs the question, why aren’t there more of these kind of apps?

I am surprised that more of these don’t exist. Having built these kinds of connectivity apps in the past most are not that difficult to achieve.

One that I would love to see happen is for the regional transit systems like the MTA and NJTransit. The NJTransit applications for phones are simple mirrors of the existing mobile site (http://m.njtransit.com) and most of the MTA apps are skimmed off parts of the MTA mobile site (with it’s terrible http://mobile.usablement.com/mt/www.mta.info). This is fine for basic information but useless when trying to report incidents, something more riders probably would do if the process itself weren’t so cumbersome. There are two examples of this I could see successfully coming out of this idea…

First, a file a complaint app in the vein of the RAT application that syncs to the reporting forms for each of the transit sites. The form isn’t available at all on the NJT or MTA mobile sites and is highly deprecated on the main sites for both (with some reporting not available at all electronically on the MTA site). A simple, multistep form that mirrors the existing experience would allow riders to bring to the agency’s attention in real time a multitude of concerns. This addresses the same reporting problems for the consumer that RAT does by allowing them to provide the information as it happens resulting in more complete and accurate information. It also provides the agency with information quicker allowing them to compensate for the problems without as much delay. It should also increase the data set on customer needs which can be used for future decision making.

There are three categories I see this falling into. As anyone who experienced rude and inconsiderate bus drivers or train conductors or station staff knows, the first would be reporting those personnel and their actions. Much like with taxi drivers, most are good at their jobs, but the few bad apples probably fly under the radar because of the lack of reporting and this empowers customers to demand respect and proper service. The second would be in regards to maintenance in the system. Currently, it is primarily policed by the system staff and not all problems may be noticed such as slipper conditions on platforms or stairwells, broken parts of train cars or buses, etc. By allowing customer feedback unsafe or inconvenient conditions can be noted quicker and addressed immediately rather than waiting for routine inspection or injury as well as taking some of the burden off system staff in trying to cover remote or less used stations by utilizing ridership as a resource. The third would be in the timeliness of travel. Although the systems are designed to note delays in real time the effect of those delays on the consumer is not, and even with the best technological solution it only presents part of the transportation story. For example, buses are subject to traffic patterns independent of the bus driver’s control and although GPS will tell the location of the bus it doesn’t let the agency know the net effect delays have on passengers. As anyone who ever sat helplessly on a delayed train knowing they were going to miss their connection will tell you, sometimes the conductors don’t always recognize how lengthy the delay has been or how much it impacts their ridership. And, lets not forget about those passengers on both systems that were trapped in (recent) snowstorms and heatwaves forgotten by the agency’s themselves. Having the ability for customers to report on on-time service and describe how it impacts their trip on the whole would increase the agency’s understanding of their customers as well as allow the rider to feel empowered by the agency despite the delay.

A second app would tie directly into this last scenario which would display back to the riders the delay information that the first app has compiled through complaints. Both the MTA and NJT have alert systems for delays (emails and text notification, announcements, displays and their websites) but those alert systems only kick in under certain delay circumstances and is dependent on the agency’s existing system technology. Crowd-sourcing system information provides another layer of data on timeliness and system health and overlays this information with customer concerns and feedback, giving these delays an actual rider “voice.” Furthermore, it empowers the rider and increases their feeling of connection to the service itself, thus providing greater confidence in it in the long run.

As many riders know, delays are un-or-under announced for any number of reasons, no the least of which is malfunctioning platform or in vehicle speaker systems. Also, most system delays don’t post until the delay is greater than x-number of minutes and the dissemination of the information through the alerts takes additional time. By crowd-sourcing the delay experience in real time a quicker picture of what is happening can occur, allowing fellow riders to apprise one another of the situation rather than having to wait for the possibility of an announcement being made. Although there will surely be inaccuracies in the crowd-source and it wouldn’t include the reason for the delay or additional information about the expected departure it could be of great value for riders who need to make quick decisions about their trip and would reduce some of the frustration of not knowing what was going on. The agency and riders would be alerted to the impact of a delay quicker and follow the progress better than without such a system and by having it compiled in one place through the app would be a much better experience for both than say the ad hoc version that occurs on Twitter daily. It might not make for fewer angry customers because of delays but it could improve the rider experience by allowing them to deal with the net effects of delays better which makes for happier customers overall.

The value of these kinds of reporting apps could easily transcend these types of transportation scenarios. Fast food and chain restaurants, regional and national retailers, banks, the better business bureau and even politicians could use these kind of user feedback mechanisms to add another layer to their customer care process, empowering customers and leveraging technology to connect them more readily to information. Having built these kind of applications before and experiencing the value of RAT (which I cannot wait for the Android version) already, there’s no reason why we won’t see more of these types of applications, be them native mobile apps with homescreen icons for places we frequent or with QR codes that can be scanned to take a user directly to a mini-site form to sing a company’s praises or lodge a complaint.

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About thedoormouse

I am I. That’s all that i am. my little mousehole in cyberspace of fiction, recipes, sacrasm, op-ed on music, sports, and other notations both grand and tiny: https://thedmouse.wordpress.com/about-thedmouse/
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