Radiant core sets the bar on critiquing the TTC’s web site

Crossposted to Transit Toronto.

The blog of the design firm Radiant Core was inspired by TTC Chairman Adam Giambrone’s call to bloggers for suggestions to improve the TTC’s website and the subsequent attention the call received from bloggers in the Toronto blogging community and the national media. As a result, Radiant Core gathered a team of some of the best web designers in the community and sat down for a thorough brainstorming session. The results of their discussions can be found here and are well worth reading.

I would say that Radiant Core sets the bar in critiquing the TTC’s official website, and offering suggestions on how to transform it into a useful resource that would be the envy of the world.

The TTC Timeline system was ahead of its time – a phone number for every stop with recorded schedule information – so far ahead, in fact, that it’s one of the only real Y2K bugs that we know about. The system was shut down in late 1999 as it become evident that “…the TimeLine system is not Year 2000 compliant and because of the age of the system hardware and other factors, it cannot be upgraded in a cost-effective and timely fashion to allow for its continued use past December 31, 1999.” (see TTC Report F591). We’d like to see a return of the Timeline, but this time as an SMS-based service which works by sending your stop ID to a TTC shortcode and getting a schedule update back. The same stop IDs can be used throughout the Schedules and Route maps to remain consistent across the whole system and to make it easy to get schedule info whenever you see an ID.

You should read the whole thing, and the TTC would do well to read it to, and find the resources to make it happen.

14 comments

  1. Is is more likely that Y2K was used as an excuese to kill TimeLine… TTC provided no verification whatsoever that it was non-compliant and just wanted to kill it to save about $250,000.

  2. They have put some real effort into this and deserve credit for taking up the challenge. Great reading.

    Another example of how the people who care seem far better at finding solutions and creating vision than those elected to do so.

    And great to hear their nod to the Octopus Card; the TTC has to get with the times.

  3. TimeLine was dumped at a time when it was convenient to come up with an excuse – this one being Y2K. Another dumb excuse is the threat of terrorism – TTC staff used this lame reason for insisting on the all-perimeter seating in the new subway cars after their other arguments were thrown out.

    Mississauga (CityLink), Oakville, Hamilton and Montreal still maintain this service, and each pre-dates 2000 as well. Perhaps the TTC did not want to maintain it, or have next bus times that are completely unrealistic given the way the surface routes run these days (and not all of it is because of traffic congestion, the other lame excuse the TTC likes to use).

    After all, the printed schedules are at major stops, but bus frequencies are not useful with the “FS” – which either means “Frequent Service” or “Full of S…” or “F…. Slow”, take your pick.

  4. It is indeed a nice post, but it’s still free consulting. The TTC has a billion-dollar budget and we don’t. Some of us do enough work for free. We’re well past the point of doing too *much* for free in this context.

    Moreover, this pretended consultation process is one in which four non-developer blog editors decide what will be copied and pasted for Giambrone and the TTC to see, even though everything is actually online. While this is nonsensical, it seems to satisfy the four blog editors and, presumably, Giambrone.

    Let’s not be quite so celebratory. The site still stinks, as did the original RFP, which I have. Nor is there any evidence that this advice is being read right now (why wait?) or will be heeded in the future.

  5. Oh, Joe. Your bitterness knows no boundaries. Even when people do good things you find a way to bring it down.

  6. Joe^

    Giambrone’s office has been reading and watching daily the content on these blogs. We’ve seen the printouts in his office.

    And we are not picking and choosing what gets submitted. Everything gets submitted, including your rants and great accessibility analysis posts.

    I’m sure Giambrone’s office would meet with you to discuss anything you wish.

  7. Folks are weighing in with tons of great, grandiose ideas. The SMS idea is, of course, a good one. It’s the kind of thing that can never happen if the TTC public information infrastructure remains closed-source.

    Radiant Core seems aware of how complex it is to want to turn the TTC into what is, in effect, a media company. “[M]aintaining a site of this size and complexity in a healthy manner requires a team of dedicated personnel”, they write. Well, yeah. They even want a community ombuds officer, volunteer Web managers, etc.

    Won’t happen. Maybe at the beginning it can. But this kind of closed-source, cathedral-from-the-getgo, “best Transit authority website in the world” sort of giantism just isn’t sustainable.

    But decentralized innovation is. I continue to believe that the most important thing the TTC can do is to shift from being a closed-source, our-vision-fits-all information publisher, to being an open-source information disseminator.

    That means going far beyond ombuds officers and community editors. It means establishing data standards, creating an information infrastructure that ports all of the data to a public feed, and making sure the feed continues to flow. Every route, stop and, if possible, bus object needs to be in there. When updates are phoned in, make the public data feed the same data source as the one the TTC uses internally.

    Then, sure, build a giant fancy huge bestest Swiss army knife Web site. But by decentralizing things and enabling big-thinkers like Radiant Core to actually implement the things they talk about — with a nary a bow or scrape to the TTC, whose data would all be hanging out there for public repurposing — TTC budget cuts, lack of vision, organizational decay, or any other human failing will no longer deprive Toronto of truly great transit tools.

    Instead, coordination would finally begin to happen. Other GTA transit authorities would begin to publish in those standards, too. Data feeds would get overlaid in new and wondrous tools. Developers would learn from one another. TTC data, and eventually — with no coordination required — GO and YRT and every other kind of data would find its way into a hundred information nooks and crannies.

    In short, an information infrastructure would come into being atop which a huge range of tools would become enabled. Rather than going big and then going home, a small idea would begin to flower in ways we cannot anticipate. Instead of the hubris of thinking a single agency could build the best transit Web site in the world and then maintain it for all possible futures, the power would be placed in the hands of Torontonians. Joe Clark could built the most accessible site in the world. Flash enthusiasts could make something, well, flashy. The Toronto Star would no doubt have its go at positioning iself as the essential transit source. And they’d all be riffing off each other ideas.

    Making the TTC Web site better is a nice idea for the short term. But, please, do something for the long-term, and build actual infratructure. Open things up.

  8. I’m willing to be that the new site will be a disappointment. The TTC can’t even run a reliable transit service; why should we expect it to get its website right, even after all the free advice it’s being given?

  9. Disp and Thick> I think we all relate with your cynicism, because we’re all Torontonians who deal with the TTC. I’m excited for a moment though to dream big, and will wait to be disappointed by them before I get pre-disappointed on my own, which is very easy. This city is full of the most talented people in the world, I’m positive the TTC will break with tradition and recognize that.
    xo

  10. I’m not so cynical about the TTC or Toronto generally — well, maybe yes, but not in this particular instance — as I am, I am hoping, relatively realistic but what large bureaucracies can and cannot do. At best, a large bureaucracy can from time to time come up with a really good Web site. In very rare instances, the same bureaucracy which came up with a really good Web site, also figures out how to continue to sustain it.

    But the odds are just not good, no matter what the large organisation is called or what its past is. Simply put, crowdsourcing works far better than closed-sourcing for this kind of project. Bazaar, not cathedral.

    And make no mistake — the kind of radical opening-up I am talking about is no less ambitious than designing a really whizbang, one-size-fits-all, greatest-ever Web site. Building an information infrastructure, and making the guts of transit artefact and flow information public, is really hard. Citizens groups everywhere fight tooth and nail to see scraps of information made public.

    What we’re talking about here is a significant and lasting contributing that the TTC is uniquely poised to make to Toronto’s transit infosphere. It just makes sense. If their goal is to bring about a situation where far better transit information is available to far more Torontonians and tourists in far more media forms, then pouring big bucks into a massive Web site redesign will be money badly spent — it is a quick fix with little sustainability.

    Building information infrastructure is a more effective and more sustainable way to bring about the goals the TTC has set for its Web site redesign No less than any other ambitious endeavour, creating such as infrastructure, and setting the cornerstone for a new Toronto transit infosphere, is exactly the kind of challenge that the TTC will need the most talented people in the world to pull off … and which, in turn, will then empower the most talented people in the world to develop the most creative transit infosphere in the world. A whizbang Web site is dreaming big. But an infosphere that launches a thousand whizbang Web sites is dreaming in technicolour, and I would love to see the TTC pull it off.

  11. Disp> You are right though, opening up the TTC information would be revolutionary. Would be Google-scaled fantastic.

  12. The TTC should have data as to where every vehicle is. Release an API and feed that data out.

    They’re providing a physical service and can not monetize this information (they need it to be free to sell their physical service). Don’t be the idiotic copyright Nazis that the TTC has been in the past and let people use the data to create any applications they can dream up, making the TTC more useful and reducing the number of overhead staffers at headquarters.

    Then, maybe, Giambrone could grow a spine and not cave in to the lawless union. Ratchet down salaries and # of employees, ratchet up hours worked, and maybe the TTC could afford to fix its equipment and invest in new service. But he’s just another NDP stooge who wants to screw citizens to pad union leaders’ salaries.

  13. The snide personal attack in the last comment aside, we could probably do more to improve the TTC’s customer service, but the suggestion that the drivers are overpaid is a little silly. Believe it or not, the TTC and GO Transit are already having difficulty in finding qualified personnel to handle the buses and streetcars, and this is a phenomenon that’s growing across public transit agencies in southern Ontario. The public transit agencies are facing competition with inter-city carriers and charter operators which are offering higher wages, easier clientele and (in the case of the charter operators) great tips.

    The current pay rate of the TTC’s drivers is not the problem of a “lawless union”, but the result of the free market setting the rates.

  14. If the TTC opens up its data, I’ll be surprised. The TTC is no different from any large organization in that it’s afraid of opening up because it doesn’t want to be subject to criticism.

    If there’s one thing large institutions cannot handle, it’s criticism, especially when they’re absolutely sure that they know what’s best and everyone else just needs to accept it. If any city agency has a “we know what’s best” attitude, it’s the TTC. Imagine the TTC releasing GPS data on its vehicles and people using it to show that claims of delays caused to traffic congestion are highly overstated. Does anyone seriously think that the TTC — or any organization — wants to subject itself to criticism?

    Let’s dream on, though. I hope Adam Giambrone can talk some sense into the guys who run the place.

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