How This Tech Startup Cracked One Of The Continent’s Toughest Industries
WhereIsMyTransport founder on the power of tech to transform Africa's public transport sector
Commuters at the Adderley Station in Cape Town
Image Courtesy: WhereIsMyTransport
South Africa's public transport sector is one of the most complex industries in the country, largely because of legacy issues that persist.
Taxis alone service about 15 million commuters everyday and bring in an estimated R90 billion in fares annually, according to national taxi association, South African National Taxi Council (Santaco). However, the multi-billion rand industry is still largely informal, plagued with safety issues, and difficult to navigate.
Techpreneurs Devin de Vries, Chris King, and Dave New have, through their tech, brought efficiency to the largely informal and fragmented public transport network, and have over a period of close to 10 years emerged as one of its pioneers.
Early this year, their startup, WhereIsMyTransport (WIMT) became the first company to offer fully integrated formal and informally run public transport data in Cape Town, and have recently completed the digital mapping of informally run public transport networks in all of South Africa's major metropolitan regions, says CEO, De Vries.
The Cape Town and London-based tech startup, established in 2008, but officially launched in 2014, has built a platform that collects public transport data in emerging cities and unifies this information to help cities understand their transport landscape and make this information widely available, updated in real time to transport officials, operators, and commuters.
Their platform gives commuters information on where and how they can find the right buses or taxis to get from one point to another. It also allows operators to evaluate their services, better plan their operations and use their fleet optimally, and for government officials to monitor services and evaluate investment within the sector.
Commuters are able to do this using WIMT's Findmyway app, to plan their point-to-point journey by mapping out all the different public transport services available such as MyCiTi and Golden Arrow Bus Services, Metrorail, the Jammie Shuttle service and City Sightseeing buses across Cape Town.
Now in over 20 cities across Africa, the startup's solution to public transportation challenges has earned them numerous accolades such as the 2015 Global Grand MobiPrize. They are part of the New Cities Summit Global Urban Innovators initiative and also won the 2017 Promising Transport Innovation Award by the International Transport Forum (ITF) - an intergovernmental organisation with 57 member countries. They also secured over R20 Million in their Seed Round, this year.
Their solution has been described as a game-changer by José Viegas, Secretary-General of the International Transport Forum (ITF), saying in a media statement that among the many transport-related Big Data projects, WIMT stands out in that it "considers informal transport, empowers user choice and encourages developing countries to start thinking about data collection and planning".
WhereIsMyTransport (WIMT) co-founders Chris
King, Devin de Vries and Dave New.
"WhereIsMyTransport is a ground-breaking project that shows the way to the 'infostructure' that will drive mobility in the future. WhereIsMyTransport has the potential for significant local impacts," Viegas said.
De Vries speaks with SME South Africa about why they chose to take on the complex public transport sector and also shares what it took to crack South Africa, their first and largest market so far.
Public Transport Is A Complex Beast
In most South African cities, public transport is made up of a mix of government-run or funded systems, privately run networks with defined routes and timetables, and informally run networks with flexible routes and scheduling.
Our solution was built to address the challenge of information accessibility in cities with a range of public transport modes.
To accurately provide transport information for emerging cities, we turned our attentions to the digitalisation of unmapped informally run networks. We developed the tools and processes to capture routes and route information, completing our data set on a city's public transport information.
There has been significant investment in public transport in cities across Africa in the last decade. Often this has resulted in formal modes being introduced alongside informally run modes. This means that this mixture of modes, common in South African cities, is now shared more widely with cities across the continent.
This is one of the factors we consider when evaluating future growth opportunities for the organisation. We also consider factors such as demographics, digital readiness, and whether our current network of partners has a footprint in those regions.
Deciphering The Confusion
WhereIsMyTransport integrates formal and informally run public transport data, making that available for individuals and organisations looking to make knowledge-driven decisions and services. One of the key challenges for us was tracking and digitalising information for informally run modes in South Africa's cities.
The scale of this task is one obvious challenge, and the need for us to build a unique mobile phone application to track the routes, another. But issues related to internet access and cost, ICT skills, and the lifespan of a mobile phone battery were also impactful on our work.
Additionally, translating data collected by our on-the-ground team into an accurate reflection of the workings of the informally run network was challenging.
"The impact of technology has not been fully realised in the public transport sector of most African cities"
Gaining Insights By Going Grassroots
We worked with local public transport users in each city to track informally run networks. By providing our data collectors with the tools and coordinating their work, data collectors shared their already existing, and often extensive, knowledge of the system. The challenge of internet access was addressed by providing our team with internet hotspots and enough mobile phone data to track and submit information. The teams were also all provided with power banks to top up mobile phones when required.
To ensure strong enough ICT skills in advance of a project, we trained the team in our collection tools as well as how to use their mobile devices – including things like checking emails, app downloads, and location settings. When looking at GPS data from a route it is sometimes difficult to interpret data oddities - basically what occurred on the ground and the reasoning for it.
To overcome these issues, daily feedback sessions are held with data collectors where the data is examined and the collector shares their experiences and communicates reasons for anomalies in the data. In the case of route anomalies, we would return to map the route again.
Unlocking The Power Of Collaborations
Hiring data collectors was more of a challenge in Botswana than in South Africa. Websites like Gumtree are widely used in South Africa, which helped us reach enough regular users of a city's informally run public transport. This was not a viable option in Botswana. Instead, we reached out to local organisations who assisted our recruitment efforts by connecting us to potential data collectors. In Ghana and Kenya, our data has been achieved through data partners as well.
Tech Can Save Public Transport In Africa
The challenges are daunting - informally run networks are sprawling and change regularly, and local issues of access and inequality can't be fixed overnight. But technology is a powerful tool for addressing and overcoming these challenges. The impact of technology has not been fully realised in the public transport sector of most African cities.
Technology is a market enabler, improving the economic viability of the sector as well as the quality of life for citizens. Public transport in many African cities is digitally excluded. This is a huge challenge to overcome, but a valuable opportunity for the technology sector to address.