Smart cities: Coding a solution to the bus stop dilemma

18 Oct 2016

Dublin bus at Christ Church. Image: massimofusaro/Shutterstock

When is the next bus due? Is it already full? What time will it get me to work? Three standard questions people ask themselves while standing under a shelter – the answers might be just around the corner.

LifeStats is a start-up that began after the frustrations of three schoolkids got the better of them. Akhil Voorakkara (CEO), Jack Lane (CFO) and Steven Harris (chief design officer) were fed up with public transport in Ireland and, with the former being an avid coder, they got thinking.

LifeStats Bus coding

We want more

Future Human

There are 2,500 bus shelters in Ireland, and many more bus stops. Some have, in recent years, featured simple LCD screens telling commuters how many minutes away a bus is.

Though they’re hardly the most accurate, the timepieces have given the public some information to work with. But the trio behind LifeStats want much, much more.

“There are loads of datasets available to work with,” said Voorakkara, the impressive driving force behind the team. “The creation of Dublinked, a Smart Dublin initiative, made this all possible.”

Mounds of datasets are free and available to the public and, after trawling through what was available, LifeStats found what they needed.

Bus capacity, commuter head counts, bus location, and accurate, real-time estimates of when buses arrive at bus stops was all possible.

LifeStats’ Jack Lane (CFO), Akhil Voorakkara (CEO), Steven Harris (chief design officer) at a smart cities event with Dublin City Council

LifeStats team from left: Jack Lane (CFO), Akhil Voorakkara (CEO), Steven Harris (chief design officer) at a smart cities event with Dublin City Council. Image: LifeStats

Coding a future

“I’m big into CoderDojo,” said Voorakkara, “I’ve been teaching for a few years at the dojo in IT Blanchardstown. So I got some boards and, thanks to the libraries available on GitHub, I programmed them to handle these datasets.”

The idea is simple: installing a palm-sized piece of hardware on each bus stop, commuters can swipe their smartphones across them using Bluetooth technology and there, on their screen, reads everything they need to know.

With a couple of prototypes currently being tested along their bus route to school, the trio’s project is flying along, with investors and organisations such as Dublin City Council interested.

Having won a prize at the Apps4Gaps awards recently, LifeStats has received money and advice from the event organisers, the Central Statistics Office (CSO), and will be at the Dublin Tech Summit 2017. The start-up has backing from Smart Dublin and is currently undergoing a feasibility study.

“We’re working with CSO and Smart Dublin to access the datasets and work out which are under-reported,” said Voorakkara. “That’s how we got original lists of datasets: we proposed our idea and were sent some relevant documents.”

Smart cities

Beyond bus stops, LifeStats wants to get information like lane traffic on motorways right into people’s palms, car parking space availability and even, most interestingly, real-time petrol pump prices tailored to a commuter’s location.

“They are all fun things to look at but, when we talk with people, it’s simply measuring capacity that commuters can’t get over,” said Voorakkara. “Heading for a bus or a train and knowing if there’s room to even get on, that’s what people are excited by.”

Now speeding towards their Leaving Certificate, Voorakkara, Lane and Harris are marrying their schoolwork with LifeStats and, as Voorakkara attests, it’s the power of the open-source community helping them get their project over the line, not a school curriculum.

“I’m in my Leaving Cert year,” he said, “and my coding has been mostly self-taught. I did the odd course during school holidays but mostly it’s me going to the library, getting books and reading up on it. I’m also friends with coders so I can always ask questions. The community helps.”

There’s an awful lot of activity in the internet of things space, especially when it comes to city planning solutions and anything related to smart cities.

For Voorakkara, Lane and Harris, LifeStats could, just maybe, play a role in Ireland’s future.

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic