FixMyTransport: keep calm and carry on crowdsourcing

September 19th, 2011 by

microtask_fixmytransportPublic transport. It’s like teenage dating or job interviews – everyone’s got their own personal horror story. The unheated train that broke down in a snowstorm; getting stuck next to “the crazy guy” on a 6 hour bus ride; any journey on the London tube. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for cleaner, greener travel but why is public transport always so square? Where’s the innovation and creativity (or the basic standards of comfort) that goes into private vehicle design? Of course, one day we’ll all plug into the matrix and cruise to work in virtual E-Types. But until then, the unsexy problem of “how to make the trains run on time” will continue to slow down humankind.

For UK citizens however, there may be a little crowdsourced light at the end of the tunnel. FixMyTransport is a site with an ambitious (some might say impossible) mission: to get Britain’s 200-year-old public transport system (ahem) back on track.

A well-trained crowd
FixMyTransport is the latest brainchild from crowdsourcing civic-engagement charity mySociety. Dedicated (or obsessive) readers may remember last year’s blog on FixMyStreet, a mySociety site where users “report, view and discuss local problems” (mostly involving potholes). Apparently, reports on FixMyStreet have led to over 65,000 street repairs (UK personal injury lawyers must be in real trouble).

FixMyTransport is very much FixMyStreet with added wheels. The site’s well-designed, calming interface is part problem-page, part social-network. You can register complaints, gather followers and campaign for new services. Every complaint is made public and automatically forwarded to the relevant transport operator.

Launched in August, “FMT” has already attracted thousands of frustrated and weary travelers. Users range from sensible, to passionate, to just plain bitter. FixMyTransport communications manager, Myfanwy Nixon, explains she always knew demand would be high: “You only have to dip into Twitter during rush hour and search for any of the major transport operators’ names to see a vast outpouring of discontent – we knew that could be channeled more constructively.

Can we fix it? Er, maybe we can
I love a good rant as much as anyone and FixMyTransport is clearly providing much-needed therapy to traumatized commuters. However, the real test will be whether the site actually gets stuff fixed? Will those “big bad” transport operators respond to crowd complaints, or will they dismiss FixMyTransport as online noise? Myfanwy admits there is a danger of creating “more heat than light,” but she also insists: “FixMyTransport isn’t about giving transport operators a bashing. Handled right, it should be a massive opportunity for companies to find out where genuine customer frustrations are”. Here’s hoping.

Other apps like Waze and the (bizarrely named) Tiramisu use crowdsourcing to provide real-time, instant transport information: where the bus is or which roads are busy. FixMyTransport is much more long-term focused. Problems can be reported long after they happen. Campaigns could go on for months or even years. I guess we’ll have to wait and see whether the crowd will stick with FixMyTransport for the long haul.

The FixMyTransport team is apparently eager to expand to other countries. Anyone fancy developing a Finnish version? Maybe we could finally get the Helsinki-Tallinn tunnel built. Now that really would be crowd power in action.


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