Public transit is a hard problem. Imagine how difficult it is for a city to meet the needs of millions, all of whom want to go different places at different times. And, inevitably, you’re left standing on the platform. Ototo wants to change all of that.
This ambitious Israeli startup is founded upon a simple principle: public transit simply doesn’t work as well as it should. From their point of view, it’s a data problem. Public transit authorities struggle to know when and where their trains and buses are needed most, because they simply can’t keep track of all the riders and their demands. Now that almost everyone is carrying a smartphone, however, it’s possible to collect all of that data and optimise routes in real time. That’s Ototo’s main mission.
Before getting too deep in the broader, idealistic end of things, I should explain what Ototo — which means “right away” in Hebrew — does. Simply put, it’s an iPhone app that tells you how to get where you want to go. Like Google Maps and Hop Stop before it, you just type in an address and hit go. The app uses a complex system of algorithms to map out the most efficient route using public transportation. It also offers turn-by-turn directions for the walking portion of your trip.
The app is gorgeous and fun to use. It will save your favourite destinations so you can find your way home or to the office in exactly two taps. During your trip, Ototo will even track your stops on the train or bus so you know how close you’re getting. New Yorkers will be sad to learn, however, that it does not yet work offline, although the company is working on that.
Aside from being especially pretty and delightfully simple, Ototo works a lot like other public transit apps. The big difference happens in the background. With every trip users take, Ototo is gathering data that they hope to sell to public transit authorities in order to help them optimise their service. The founders explained that the idea was inspired by the fact that 16 per cent of the buses in Israel are empty at any given time, leading to millions of dollars in losses every year. Data can fix that.
“If we have all the users and and the people in the world using our app, then public transportation would be perfect,” Ototo co-founder and CEO Snir Mac told Gizmodo, “because we’d always know where people are, where they’d like to go, and when.”
That’s kind of a big “if,” when you think about it. Ototo is great, but most people probably already use Google Maps for their route planning. Apple, who bought Hop Stop, is supposed to add public transit functionality in iOS 8. However, Ototo isn’t just targeting the every day consumer. They’re also working on an app for bus drivers that will let them give real time feedback on routes and will also incentivise them to perform better. There’s also an incentive for riders to use Ototo, too, since they’re ostensibly helping improve the system when they do.
All that said, I’ve spent the last few days using Ototo for my public transit needs, and I love it. Apple Maps still thinks I’m in Australia half the time. Google Maps is clunky and annoying. And, frankly, I feel pretty good about the idea of my data doing good. You should too. Remember, the more people use it, the better public transportation gets for everybody. [Ototo]