A team at Thoughtworks won a prize for this Android app that lets you report bus frequency. It can be tweaked to do a lot more.

At the Planning Commission Hackathon held at Chennai IIT some weeks ago, at team of software professionals from Thoughtworks presented an app that does what every bus commuter would like to - tell those in authority that the particular service is simply inadequate.

The Android app by Pavithra K, Deepthi R and Shobana M, titled “Bus Frequency Tracking System” had only two variables for a particular bus route: very high and very low frequency. Tracking also involves the time at which the feedback was provided. It was a fresh and promising proof of concept, and the app won an award from the Planning Commission.

In a crowded city like Chennai (metro area population in excess of eight million as per Census 2011) with a grossly insufficient bus service, an app of the kind written by Pavithra and team is sure to be a hit. With little effort, it can be customised to reflect a couple of more parameters, probably adding information on whether a service is overcrowded.

What about hosting a public database in a standardised format - say, as a spreadsheet - with similar objectives? Over a month, this writer put together some basic information on commutes, providing details on badly maintained Chennai Metropolitan Transport Corporation buses into a publicly hosted spreadsheet, into which other commuters can add their own feedback.

Interesting patterns emerge even with the limited data. To give an example, buses belonging to a particular depot in South Chennai - K. K. Nagar - were found to be very badly maintained, lacking proper suspensions, having broken seats and hand rails, and sporting prohibited air horns. Amusingly, a couple of these rickety vehicles were being operated by MTC as “Deluxe” services, charging twice the normal fare. Other buses surveyed were just passable, and hence not included.

If a significant number of passengers take to this method of assessing bus service quality, the entire claimed fleet of 3637 buses (as of July 2013) could potentially be evaluated and the information shared among the users. Such feedback can potentially put sufficient pressure on the MTC, to buy the spare parts that are chronically missing and keep buses in proper condition.

While on the question of Android apps for Chennai bus services, among the useful ones is MTC bus route by Hariharan Babu (balu.hariharan90@gmail.com). It provides the basic details of bus routes, with a search function for places. There is suburban train information too, despite the name of the app. Of course, there is a fair choice other apps on Google Play as well, promising to do the same thing.

What will really make our transport managers and urban planners sit up would be something that goes beyond giving information, by also taking the commuter’s feedback - and here, the Thoughtworks code appears promising.