I’m Designing Chicago’s Next Transportation App, And So Can You

A dispatch from a crowdsourced design project — and an invitation to join us
by Agent Will Anderson

If you're an smartphone-carrying CTA rider, this might sound familiar: You use Google Maps to plan your route and find out when the bus should be coming, but it doesn't take into account that the bus is running 15 minutes late. Then you watch it pass by without stopping, too stuffed with people to open its doors. You think to yourself, there has to be a better planning tool.

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That tool is in the works. A transportation app that's beautiful and functional and tailored specifically for the Chicago region. And in a novel process, the app is being designed not by a set of experts but by a small army of amateurs, and anyone can sign up to be part of the team.

If you're dubious, then you're exactly where I was last summer, when I discovered that a design outfit called Greater Good Studio was promising something even better than Chicago’s new transit app: the chance to have a hand in creating Chicago’s new transit app. Volunteers needed to be observant and curious — no design expertise required.

It sounded a little crazy. Why open up an already complicated design process to a crowd with no credentials? But they claimed the crowd was essential. In a video about the project, John Tolva, the city of Chicago's Chief Technology Officer and an advisor to the project, explains "It’s not just a man hour thing; it’s a perspective thing." An app that's built for so many Chicagoans needs to come from their expressed needs, frustrations, and hopes. To successfully be for Chicago, it also has to be by Chicago.

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So that's how I found myself getting marching orders from a video addressed to "Urban Agents." My first assignment: Observe my commute. What tools do I use in getting from home to work? Greater Good Studio encouraged me to define "tools" as practically anything that helped me get where I was going. I became aware for the first time how I take an underground rumble as a cue to speed up to reach my train in time, and how feeling my bus's wide turn in the last leg of my commute tells me to put down my book and watch for my stop.

I progressed through assignments two, three, and four: Observe yourself as a newbie (new route or mode of transit), gather "pro tips" from other riders, and share your best and worst transportation stories. Then, some Agents were selected to meet in person at Greater Good Studio’s Logan Square office and work with the stories everyone had sent in. Some were about problems I never would have anticipated; others were things I experienced all the time but had never articulated. We wrote down the opportunity areas suggested by each insight — sometimes concrete like "How might we quickly evaluate options after a missed connection?" and sometimes more abstract like "How might we inspire confidence in riders?" — and grouped them thematically on the wall. In charmingly low-tech fashion, Chicago's desires for a better transit tool took shape, expressed in permanent marker and ranked with colored adhesive dots.

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At a glance, the wall looked like an elementary school student's bulletin board, but in fact the process was carefully guided by the founders of Greater Good Studio. Luckily, the people leading our rag-tag group have some bona-fides. George Aye is a professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and formerly the lead designer for the CTA. Sara Cantor Aye teaches design at Northwestern, the School of the Art Institute, and Lake Forest College. I'm not the only one who is impressed: a week after the project started, Greater Good Studio was awarded a $10,000 TED prize to help the process along and make it replicable in other cities.

As they closed the evening, George and Sara congratulated us on finishing the "research" phase. Now, they said, comes the "design" phase, starting on February 11th.

And this is where you come in. This phase, too, will be open to the public, and it will use the themes we previously uncovered as inspiration to brainstorm and sketch possible features. It's a perfect moment for a new contributor to join because we will all be starting from scratch on a new set of tasks.

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There's some risk here. While it's fun to get a free peek into a professional design process, and to meet fellow transit-interested Chicagoans, and to exercise one's amateur design skills, the real test will be the result hitting the App Store with my and everyone's fingerprints all over it — and the more people join in now, the likelier it is that the app will drastically improve the way Chicagoans navigate our city.

So if you're ready for a better transportation app, then it's time to sign up and make one.

The Design Phase kicks off on February 11th with the first Brainstorm challenge. Participate online, via text, or in person and join me to create Chicago's next transportation app.

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William Comfort Anderson is excited to add "Urban Agent" to his resume. He lives in Noble Square, but you can probably find him on the Blue Line.