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Better Mobility Through Mobility
by Lori Castle
The New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT) took the smart approach in developing its most recent mobile application — it began with the end result. By clearly defining the business objectives, the technology would then align.
Todd Westhuis, Acting P.E. Director, Office of Traffic Safety and Mobility Department of Transportation, State of New York Operations Division led the 511NY app project. He explains, “The NYSDOT’s goal in deploying the 511NY app was to positively influence travel and allow users to make better choices in transit: a greater good approach. We aren’t trying to sell anything; we just want to make navigating the State of New York easier.”
The organization was smart in its next step as well. Since this mobility project was new territory for the NYSDOT, Westhuis said they sought out a partner and platform to advise its IT department on how to build and deploy the content, taking it from desktop to handheld.
511NY was originally launched in 2008 as an online system. At that time, the smartphone craze was picking up, with the iPhone having launched the prior year. Taking note of this trend, NYSDOT became interested in taking 511NY mobile. According to Westhuis, “From there, we built a strong mobility team consisting of Telvent and Verivo Software to stay ahead of the trend and be a vanguard in our approach.”
Rexella William, 511NY Project Manager, Office of Traffic Safety & Mobility, Department of Transportation, State of New York, points out that both app management and security are important for the NYSDOT, and certainly critical to deploying a successful app. She says, “We wanted to ensure that our partners had requisite requirements like single sign-on, remote user management and mobile analytics. Also, in allowing for the 511NY app to access our databases, it was critical to provide read-only access to web-based data, which prevents potential threats from accessing the data and copying/altering it on their devices.” The content for the 511NY app is pulled in from existing web services, regional databases, including the My511 web portal which was originally built for web use only.
During the app development process, Westhuis said they relied heavily on their solution partners and would receive a version of the app for testing, secure internal feedback on the features and work with the team to implement new changes. “The cooperation between NYSDOT, Telvent and Verivo allowed everyone involved to focus on their strengths, which lead to a much stronger final product.
The app was first deployed in 2010 and its power lies in what Westhuis calls “the data fusion engine — which allows us to drive many of our best features.” For example, within the 511NY app is the Transit Trip Planner, which calls out to five New York State databases and displays 50 transit schedules, all linked together for travelers to plan their visit.
Using the Transit Trip Planner, travelers can sketch out their routes using public transit all the way from Buffalo to Montauk, NY, and even locations that originate from out-of-state areas in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. In addition, the 511NY app is location-aware, which makes the user’s experience tailored to their immediate surroundings.
He adds, “As part of our mobile strategy, we wanted to reach as many mobile devices of our constituents as possible, which meant developing a mobile website in addition to the 511NY app. The mobile website http://m.511ny.org was launched in tandem with the 511NY app in 2010.” The app can be downloaded for free and run on BlackBerry, iPhone and Android devices. They did not see a need to develop the 511NY app for offline, mostly because their web services are updating every minute dynamically into the app .
While this app may seem all about the “consumer,” as many businesses are discovering, there is crossover and relevance to the enterprise. Westhuis says, “We don’t consider the 511NY app just employee-facing or just consumer-facing, we actually see our employees as consumers too. The most important function of the 511NY app is that it can be used by anyone who is traveling throughout the State of NY — be they an employee, resident or non-resident. In fact, the app has been used in many instances for surface transportation control. Our managers use it on the go to determine traffic and inclement climate conditions: especially in the winter.”
In fact, this weather status was one of the first enhancements to the app. Based on user feedback, they added road condition information. This identifies the road status for travelers on a descending scale based on traffic and inclement weather. William says that employees are using this to work as well. She explains, “This feature has been used by both our travel consumers and plow operators, who are able to identify which areas require service while they are in route. Plus, when a winter travel advisory is in effect, the plow drivers have the status radioed in via the mobile app, and they can learn when a storm is due to hit so they can be ready in the hour of need.”
The app has won multiple awards, and on top of this, William says, “To me, a successful app is one that is used over and over again, and is reliable, not susceptible to crashes.” They are working on a new initiative, says Westhuis called “Drivers First.” The app provides better route alternatives. “We are also working on making NYSDOT data available for connected vehicles — whether it’s an in-dashboard GPS system, or a first responder’s dashboard monitor,” he notes.
No one within the NYSDOT or within the State of New York had ever done this according to William, so they continually review user feedback and statistics provided by their mobility team. “We read through the initial feedback and the number of downloads the 511NY app was getting, which lead us to conclude that we needed to continuously develop the app’s features. When we got started on this project, we knew what we wanted to include, but after we deployed, we learned that as a part of the continuous development process — there was more we could add.”
The NYSDOT maintains an open data policy for developers, which is one of the first, and remains one of the only agencies in the country that does. Westhuis says, “We feel that it’s important for the developer community to have access to the real-time information that powers our State to continue to build tools that analyze and present that data in new and exciting ways.”