Kelly Faircloth is a guest blogger for Betabeat.
The travails of the New York City subway rider often seem endless, and while that late night map is undeniably snazzy, it’s going to take something a little more technically sophisticated to sort out the average rider’s woes.
Enter the MTA’s App Quest competition. Each of the 42 apps submitted make use of MTA data to create a better (or at least a less painful) mass transit experience. The judging criteria: quality, implementation, and potential impact. Even the runners up were promising: Free NYC Subway Location helps find the nearest station, and Notify Me NYC automatically alerts users if their usual train goes awry. Voters went for CityMaps.com, which melds real-time information from both subways and local businesses. But it was trip planner Embark NYC that took home the $5,000 grand prize.
What tipped the scales in their favor? We reached co-founder Tom Hauburger on his cell (as he attempted to board a plane), and he attributed victory to the fact that the app is still usable sans cell signal. “We made the technical investment of taking all that data the MTA provided and baking it into the application. That allows you to do all your trip routing offline.” That means you’ll never find yourself underground, blindly wondering whether switching lines would save time.
The company’s founders—recent Y Combinator alums, based in the Bay Area—originally built a trip planner for San Francisco’s BART. They then decided to translate that plan to New York City, the nation’s largest transit system, and luckily the timing coincided nicely with the MTA’s contest. “We’d done a soft launch of the product back in August, and then entered the submission later, in the fall/winter time frame,” Mr. Hauburger said. Embark is also available in other cities including Boston and Philadelphia.
Of course, the trick is competing in a market that’s already got plenty of action. But Mr. Hauburger is confident in both their product and the power of the happy customer, crediting word of mouth and positive app store reviews for the success they’ve seen so far. And while users might have something else installed, “all we need is for that app to make somebody late one time, and that person’s looking for a better solution,” he said. “If they get into a situation where they’ve had a frustrating experience and they’re looking for something else—we think at that point, we offer the best experience and stay on their phones.”
As for what’s next, they’ve just launched in Boston and they’re also working to get their London version up-to-speed for the Olympics. From there, they’re planning their international roll-out based on transit ridership and smartphone penetration.