Last week, Google brought back its Pac-Man overlay for Google Maps to celebrate April Fools’ Day. The popular stunt prompted a not-so-subtle reminder that Boston has some of the worst and most confusing thoroughfares in the nation – resulting in Boston being the toughest city in America to turn into Pac-Man.
Boston and Google Maps are two very important things in my life. I live in the former and have become incredibly dependent on the later to get me home on a daily basis. I’m one of those so called “reverse commuters” who live in the city but work outside it. As any reverse commuter can tell you, the morning commute out of the city is great, but the return is just as apocalyptic on both sides of I-93 once the sun starts to set. In using the traffic feature of Google Maps, I’m offered the opportunity to avoid emptying my gas tank while going nowhere by assessing my alternatives (safely, I promise – I have a dash stand for my phone and Bluetooth so I can access hands free).
Who do I have to thank for this ability? Google yes, but also – my fellow drivers.
In class, we’ve talked a lot about the different social media platforms and the potential application behind some of the most popular forums. However, something as basic as Google Maps is arguably social media at its best. When I turn on Google Maps before starting my car I’m sending information that, when combined with contributions from fellow motorists, offers all of us the opportunity to save time and energy in making it back home. That’s time and energy that can be put into Twitter and class blogs.
All of this requires so little effort on anyone’s part yet derives such immense value. There are three points during my commute every day that I have to make a decision about which streets I’m going to take. Radio traffic reports don’t cover many of the routes I need – so being able to harness the data provided by others who are traveling ahead of me is often a lifesaver. There are some rumors that eventually Google would like to be able to open up its Maps app to two-way communication by alerting a certain percentage of drivers that they should alter their route. This would result in less traffic for everyone on all roads, and could solve one of life’s biggest and most consistent headaches.
Of course, traffic is mostly a result of many people being reluctant or unable to use public transportation. Last week I decided to try taking the bus downtown to an event rather than driving and having to hunt for parking. My reward was a 25-minute wait for the next bus to show up at the Fenway depot and a standing room only spot on the long ride back to Brighton. It took me close to an hour to get home for a trip that takes me no more than 20 minutes to drive myself. Much like traffic is improved by social sharing of real-time information, public transportation could also benefit. I’ve waited so long for a reliable app that tracks the T in real-time. In researching for this post, it turns out there’s hope. A group of Canadian developers is gaining steam with Transit App. It tracks subways, buses, and trains across 91 metro areas using shared user data. It even has an integration with Uber or the nearest bike or car share location if public transit can’t go where you want or is running really behind.
The possibilities here are astounding. You can use this not only at home, but on the road. If you’re visiting a major metropolitan city you could possibly avoid costly rental car expenses while still getting where you want to go in a reasonable amount of time. But its best use is at home. If I need to be somewhere in Boston and want to take the T, Transit App now offers me the opportunity to plan my comings and goings based on where the subway or bus is when I’m getting ready to leave. No more waiting out in the rain – and if I do get stuck I don’t have to go far to catch an Uber. The makers of Transit App believe, as I do, that the only way cities will survive and flourish is with reliable and highly utilized public transit. This is one giant positive step toward that goal.
Think of all the other things in life besides driving and transportation that could be aided by social data sharing from smartphones:
- “I really want to go see ‘Furious 7’ tonight, but it’s opening night. I wonder if there are seats in the theater? Oh, looks like there are still 15 seats still available for the 7 pm showing at the local multiplex – let’s do it!”
- “It’s a rainy Saturday and I want to go to the mall, but I hate trying to find a parking spot; I wonder if there’s any spots left at the mall? My parking app says there are only three right now, maybe I’ll go later.”
- “What’s the wait time at Panera right now? Only 5 minutes! Turkey Bacon Bravo here I come!”
We often think of social media in terms of logging on and posting our thoughts, pictures and comments with others, but it’s becoming so much more than that. Our social interactions have the ability to help each other in ways that we hadn’t thought of before and provide huge value. Many of them require very little effort on our part, so why wouldn’t you do it?