Five years ago when I was a resident at the Canadian Film Centre’s Media Lab we would brainstorm possible new media programs/applications/devices/things that we could create content for. Lots of ideas involved the city and, more importantly, locations in the city. We thought about how to deliver content and information to those locations — information that was specifically about that location. The problem was our ideas were way ahead of the technological solutions at the time. Devices either did not exist with the capability we needed or the technology was far too expensive or clunky. Eventually we developed [murmur] there and it avoided the technological issues by simply getting the user (in this case, somebody who wants to hear a location specific story) to give us their location manually (by typing the location code into their mobile phone). Easy, cheap and low tech.
Fast forward to 2008 and we have the iPhone (and similar GPS enabled devices). I resisted for four days when it was launched in Canada back in July, but broke down and got one. My immediate reaction was that the iPhone effortlessly does all the stuff we wished a device could do back in 2003. It knows where you are and can tell you things about your surrounding area. Those things could be restaurant locations, various nearby Twitter users, what your neighbours are listening to on Last FM, and now, with the release of the Red Rocket iPhone application, TTC information.
I installed it on my phone earlier this week and have been using it around the city. It is quite a big download as it comes with a lot of information embedded in it (rather than pulling it off of the network as you need it) which is necessary as it needs to work when in subway tunnels that haven’t yet been (un)wired (soon, please!). It comes with information on each bus route, maps of the subway and streetcar lines as well as an automatic RSS feed from the TTC (for transit advisories) and updates from the Transit Toronto blog. The futuristic-for-2003 part is that you can ask it to find the closest TTC stops for your current location. Though I knew the main TTC routes that went through North York on my Toronto Flaneur hydro corridor walk on Sunday afternoon I could have found out what the closest stop was at anytime, including more obscure routes that I’m not familiar with. I admit I used the iPhone’s Google Map application to figure out a way around an uncrossable stream.
Most useful is that Red Rocket will tell you the next time each TTC vehicle is due at that particular stop (on routes where information is available). An interesting point is the developers decided to use non-TTC stop-time information gathered by MyTTC.ca contributors because “we believe that MyTTC times are more accurate than those posted at your stop or station”. Ideally the TTC will one day also open up their internal (publicly owned) data to feed 3rd party applications like this. While Red Rocket is something the TTC themselves should have created, it’s likely done considerably cheaper, quicker and more nimbly by an outside firm. “Nimbly” in the sense that a small firm can respond and makes changes quicker than a bureaucracy with 50 years of staid momentum (this opinion is simply based on how long it has taken for the TTC to update their website and install “next bus/streetcar/subway” technology). If all that (public!) information was freed up, talented designers and programmers could create things we haven’t dreamed of yet.
The application was developed by a two-person software development team in Toronto who point out that this is their 1.0 version, and future iterations will be tightened up and expanded. They hope to gather feedback from early users in order to make it better. I look forward to expanded stop information on routes that don’t currently list that information, and more detailed route maps that shows bus routes as well as a drill-down function that allows us to see each individual stop on all the surface routes.
To check it out for yourself, head to the iTunes application store and look up “Red Rocket.” It will set you back a cool $1.99, about as much as I paid for a TTC ride when I first moved to Toronto.