Can online crowds make the trains run on time?

  • 30 August 2011
  • From the section Technology
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trains with graffiti

Your train is always late, the bus shelter has been vandalised, and there's nowhere safe to park your bike at the station - but to be honest making a complaint is just too much hard work.

From today though FixMyTransport could change all that.

The latest and most ambitious venture from MySociety, the civic hacking organisation behind sites like TheyWorkForYou, aims to be a one-stop shop for people trying to get their transport improved.  

A simple and attractive interface, with the tremendous catchphrase "Euston, we have a problem", invites users to report a problem, and have their issues forwarded to the right operator or local authority. Their responses will then be reported on the site, and if the issue is finally resolved, that information will be made public.

The site has been undergoing live testing for some weeks, and there are already some examples of how it's working.

Will the project catch on?

One user complained that the Greenland Pier, where passengers board commuter boats down the Thames, was in poor repair. There was a swift reply, informing him that the local council was planning to renovations, and the issue is now listed as "fixed".

It is a similar idea to FixMyStreet, where you can report a pothole or fly-tipping, and see your local council's response. Its claim is that 65,000 potholes and other broken things have been meded as a result of its efforts, and just in the last week 1,000 new reports have been lodged with the site.

The energetic Tom Steinberg, the man behind MySociety, believes its latest site could prove even more popular, though he admits it is a bit of shot in the dark: "I just feel instinctively that people are more irritated by overcrowded trains and late buses than by potholes and fly-tipping."

Keeping FixMyTransport going if it does take off will require plenty of resources, and the hope is that a volunteer community of the kind that has gathered round other MySociety websites will form to do much of that work.

Mr Steinberg's ideas about using big data projects to engage the public have been watched with interest by the last two governments.  

There has been a feeling of late that many such projects are of more interest to a small community of data geeks - or to politicians looking for a quick headline - than to the general public.

But MySociety tries to focus on what will appeal to real people.

"Nobody wakes up thinking they'd really like to explore some interesting data via an attractive visualisation", says Mr Steinberg. "But they do think about getting a branch cleared from the road, or why the train doors don't shut properly."

If thousands do flock to FixMyTransport over the next few weeks, maybe the trains will start to run on time - and the whole idea of mobilising people online for practical purposes will get a much-needed fillip.