Since the alternatives like public transport are often much worse, when a family has enough money, the first thing they do is buy a car. In the US, there are 3 cars for every 4 people. This trend of motorisation is already underway in many places that can least afford it (dense megacities of the developing world), bringing with it not just gridlock (see traffic in Bangkok and Jakarta) but also pollution and a city where cars get more preference than people.

In Dhaka, car ownership is at a low 1%, which means now is the critical time to shore up the alternatives and the 5 million plus ridership bus system (one of the largest in the world) is perhaps the best place to start.

In Dhaka, buses are the lifeline for getting around the relatively compact, 18 million person mega capital of Bangladesh, which despite low car ownership, has been referred to as the slowest city in the world. Riding a bus in Dhaka, however, requires a bit of bravery (as we found out). First, since the informal network is a hodgepodge of services from private operators who manage their fleets independently, it is difficult for both a visitor and a lifelong local to figure out which bus goes where. There are few official bus stops and no signage that matches the buses or the stops.

When you actually get on the buses (which requires a modest jump onto an often moving vehicle), you must squeeze your way in (since most buses are extremely crowded all of the time) and then negotiate fares with the fare collector (even though the fare is supposedly fixed). Alighting also requires a modest jump from a moving vehicle (there is a technique for doing this that local know) whilst also avoiding the chaos of cars, pedestrians, CNGs and rickshaws (the most in the world) on the busy street. While it will take quite a Herculean effort to improve this experience significantly (which some noble people are undertaking), we believe that information, which can be rapidly generated via a tested technique called flocksourcing, can be a powerful catalyst for improving service in general, and in doing so, help avoid the need to buy a car.

In January of 2012, we teamed up with our amazing partner Kewkradong in Dhaka to pilot a technique where we deployed a flock of smartphone-armed volunteers to rapidly collect data on Dhaka’s bus system. (We affectionately call this method flocksourcing). In 7 days, the flock tracked 270 buses on two lines and surveyed 1,000 people. The data they collected helped us get a first glimpse of not just routes, but travel times, crowding levels, who rode each line and what made them happy.

The pilot greatly exceeded our expectations and revealed some (unconfirmed) surprising insights: (1) bus rider happiness was more a function of crowding than bus speed, (2) less crowding was due to bigger buses, and (3) the less crowded the buses the more women who rode that bus (a big thing in a place where less than 10% of riders were female). This information, if confirmed, may shift emphasis from developing Bus Rapid Transit (which is underway in Dhaka) to Big Bus Transit.

Our goal, with your help, is to scale up this pilot and cover the entire bus network of Dhaka and transform that data into something useful to bus users in Dhaka.

As you might suspect, most bus riders in Dhaka don’t have smartphones (although based on our survey, many of them have a phone of some kind).  Since we want to get this information in the hands of the customers when they need it, the timeless paper map, which we will print locally in Dhaka, will probably be the most useful format.  We envision printing these maps for consumers to both keep in their pockets and in larger formats to post in public gathering spots like chai stands.

While the paper maps are the main output of this effort, the data collection effort that underlies it will lay the foundation for a larger bus info-structure that includes not just paper maps but also bus and bus stop signage and live bus trackers.  

If effective in Dhaka, this model could be adapted and deployed in other cities that rely on informal bus transport and have to be scrappy about their limited resources (we have talked to cities from Buenos Aires to Nairobi).  In addition, in line with the mission of the Urban Launchpad, all data that is collected will be made open and available for anyone to mash-up and visualize into other important insights for bus riders, operators and the city.

Smartphone designed by George Agpoon

Risks and challenges

One risk will always be fieldwork in Dhaka itself. Stepping onto a main city street, one is immediately bombarded by the din of daily life. A sea of rickshaws, buses, cars, bicycles, motorcycles, and CNGs extends in every direction as the city’s 18 million residents and their goods move about. We are fortunate be working side-by-side with a local team who knows the city like the back of their hand.

Between now and January, we’ll be asking our local team to continue to collect data on the ground in Dhaka. The dangers of this process are real and unpredictable. At any point, there could be a hartal (political strike), a flood, or a part of the city completely shut down. Fortunately we are lucky enough to work with a local team that is familiar with these trials from a lifetime of experience and flexible enough to adapt as necessary.

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