This post got somewhat delayed by various events. Apologies to both Pejman and Reza. 

Crucially at this lab meeting we had to start by congratulating Pejman on his successful viva! This was done in style, with many cakes from what appears to be the lab group’s favourite, Patisserie Valerie. Ignore the healthy-looking apples in the middle there – we certainly did!

Celebratory cakes

Once we had finished with the cakes, the rest of the lab session was a guest presentation from Reza Rawassizadeh, who is currently working at the Open University in the UK. Reza is currently looking at the problem of personalising public transport, with the grand aim of persuading people to leave their cars at home.

The project he is currently working on looks at the buses, and the various mobile applications supplied by bus companies. In particular he is focussing on buses in Milton Keynes in the UK, and Lisbon in Portugal. The buses in Lisbon are apparently pretty well networked, with automatic fare detection in operation. Analysing this auto fare information has allowed them to show that most people are creatures of habit, riding pretty much the same route at the same time on a given day.

He has found that the apps focus very much on providing info on timetabling, which provides only limited information for the passengers to choose which bus they are going to get. There are often several ways to get between two points, which may have different things to recommend them depending on the traffic or the time of day. These include the amount of crowding on the bus, or perhaps the temperature on a given bus and so on. He also found that the apps on offer were not well-designed. His early studies identified that the main use-case for these apps is whilst walking towards the stop, and most were not well designed for someone who is not concentrating fully on the application.

He produced a number of alternative application designs, attempting to integrate the bus crowding data with the arrival times for the buses. These were then shown to bus users in Milton Keynes, who were asked for their feedback on the designs.

The solution that Reza found was very popular featured an animation of the bus and where it currently was on its route. The problem with that is that the data shown is only an approximation, as the bus company do not have precise data on where their buses are at any given time. It would be interesting to take this design beyond the mock-up stage and give it a more thorough test, to see what implications the lack of accurate data has for the usability and how much the bus users like it in day-to-day use.

It was great to hear about this kind of research, and understand some of the challenges that come about due to the design of the bus system in a given country. The auto-ticket functionality in Lisbon provides much more complete information about who travels where and how many people are on the bus at any given time, whereas UK buses make no record of when or where someone gets off the bus. The fact that the buses cannot be accurately located at a given moment means that one of the big questions (how long until the bus gets to this stop?) cannot be answered as accurately as users might like. He also highlighted some of the trials and tribulations faced by a researcher in this area – the passengers were all too willing to share their frustrations with the entire bus system!

We wish Reza all the best with this challenging project, and hope he succeeds in improving the lives of bus passengers everywhere (and maybe specifically in Brighton…).