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This is the second story of two about the “Designing Chicago” launch party. See “Why do these people love the CTA?

Greater Good Studio of Logan Square intends to build a mobile app that will showcase a new map of the CTA. It will have some other features as well, but determining what those are will be left up to backers who help contribute to the app’s fundraising on Kickstarter. The studio is led by George Aye and his wife Sara Cantor Aye, two Chicago designers.

According to George, the CTA prints out 750,000 copies of its system map every year. “I want to make it smaller, easier, more usable on the go, for someone that’s not very familiar with it. I’ve talked to Dennis McClendon [the original designer of the current CTA map], and others who agree, that the map is more useful for people who’re somewhat experts on the system.”

The Ayes want to raise $125,000 via Kickstarter to create this app. And those who “back it” at a certain level are invited to become developers of the app. It’s crowd sourced funding, and crowd sourced design.

George Aye was once a lead designer at CTA, has worked at IDEO, and is a visiting professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Sara Aye was Research Director at IA Collaborative. She teaches at SAIC and at Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

I first spoke with George in March 2011 when he emailed me asking about the bike crash map I made in February. He was teaching a class at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC). He invited me to be a guest critic for the class’s project, Living in a smart city. It later turned out that we had a few friends in common, designers, writers, and CTA workers alike.

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Andrew Huff loves the CTA because “it’s the transportation lifeline of the city”. Read his article about this project on Gapers Block. 

Respecting the community approach to its development, the Ayes, being the project leaders, haven’t planned its direction:

We don’t have an outline on what the app will look like, or what features it will have. We don’t have a development partner right now. We can discover what technical target to aim for: it’s iPhone right now for clarity’s sake, a placeholder.

George also explained that Android is a fragmented system, with millions of handsets using tens of different versions of the mobile operating system (OS). It could be that an app for iOS devices (iPhone, iPad, iPod touch) comes first and Android comes later.

“There may be a way to develop a platform-agnostic core. It might be possible to use HTML5″, and afterwards add a platform-specific wrapper to make it usable on iOS, Android, or Windows Phone.

When George first told me about this project in May, when we ran into each other outside New Wave Coffee on Logan Boulevard, the project was about making a new map, a printed map. A lot of things changed very quickly. He crafted an advisory board, comprised of other designers, including Massimo Vignelli, as well as managers at the CTA and mayor’s office (chief technology officer John Tolva is an advisor). After discussing the plans with the board, paper flew out the window. George described the remodel:

“Why the hell are you doing a printed map?” was the advisory board’s reaction. “No one cares about a map anymore.”

But a map was something I could wrap my head around. I was thinking we could start with a map and then work towards a mobile app. A mobile app can cost a lot of money. After a number of talks with advisory board, starting with the app first was decided to be the better way.

We think we can still design a new map (portable, clear for first time rider, maybe just focus on the train because buses are more difficult to visualize) within the app. A new graphic. This seems to be the better, logical, direction, and I’m very comfortable.

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George hits the “launch” button for the Kickstarter campaign. 

The Kickstarter campaign gives creators 30 days to raise the minimum level of funding ($125,000 in this case), or they get nothing. The deadline is Wednesday, August 8, at 6:51 PM (30 days to the minute after clicking launch on the website). As of this publishing, 107 backers have pledged $9,197. If $125,000 is reached by the deadline, then all of the backers’ credit cards will be charged; if not, then no one gets charged.

How is this app going to be different?

The strategy we’ve taken is that the whole project is gaining insight with riders’ needs by working with riders themselves [the backers]. We’re not going to do surveys and focus groups. We don’t think that digs deeply into their needs. We want riders to play a role in designing and developing the app themselves. Through their behavior, and the behaviors they observe, that will help us see more clearly how the app should be developed.

Through this holistic approach, it should be clearer and better.

That doesn’t necessarily get into how the “Designing Chicago” crowd funded app will be different from all the apps out there, those that the CTA even lists on its website.

Most apps take a very thin slice of the journey, “where’s the next bus?” – you’ve answered all the pre-questions when you come to that question. How many minutes it takes to walk to the bus stop, I wanted to get a coffee first, do I have my umbrella, when’s the meeting?

Is $125,000 the right amount? The answer is tricky, as George describes.

You could probably build an app for $50k, or you could hire a 14-year-old for $10k. The question isn’t about building the app, but about updating it. For example, if there’s tweaks to the data feeds [from CTA's Bus and Train Trackers, and other sources]. And build updates that grow the service. Maybe we’ll do more than transit, and track car sharing services. Other things in the landscape of mobility choices in Chicago. We can live with the fact that we don’t raise $125k. A bigger risk would be to raise less and build a lame app. Or raise $50k and say, “Oops, we need more money”. We set the number to be realistic, based on our discussion with our advisors, who’ve paid others to build apps, commissioned apps, or built it themselves. I don’t want to undersell design. I don’t want to undersell developers’ value.

If it was cheap, I don’t know if people would believe it’s good. People perceive value at different levels. If it’s so cheap, why doesn’t everybody do it? If it’s so cheap, why am I helping out?

Why does Greater Good Studio exist?

It exists as a way to scratch an itch. The same ways that design is used to solve business problems can be used to solve design issues, like obesity and healthiness in school. These are typically areas that don’t get design attention.

Crowd funding is one of several business models that George wants to test in the studio’s quest to find a sustainable business model in their approach in “using design to solve large social issues”. The studio hasn’t defined them all, but will soon embark on another mission that invests in a local non-profit organization, help them clarify their position and their benefit to society, with the aim of using the revamp as a way to attract foundation grants.

Updated 13:03 to add section on how this app is different than existing apps about riding the CTA. 

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  • http://www.facebook.com/scott.presslak Scott Presslak

    Here’s to hoping the new map finds a way to simply and effectively link the CTA bus and ‘L’ systems into a cohesive map. Bus connections (or even just a cross street) would be extremely useful to CTA novices and tourists, who don’t realize that, say, the #80 Irving Park bus stops at the Sheridan Red Line station, or the #72 North bus stops at the Damen Blue Line station. It also shows how buses can be effectively used for links between the ‘L’ lines outside the Loop, like the #81 Lawrence between Kimball Brown Line and the Jefferson Park Blue Line.

    • http://www.stevevance.net/ Steven Vance

      I haven’t decided if the lack of streets on the existing CTA map is a strength or a weakness. Having the streets may make the rest of the map cluttered and illegible, but not having the streets removes the relationship between that street and its namesake bus route.

  • derek_eder

    George, This seems like an interesting and enthusiastic project, though a few questions popped in to my head as I was reading:
    1) What’s wrong with the existing CTA map? Why do we need a new one?
    2) Doesn’t Google already solve the general problem of getting around via public transit?

    • http://www.stevevance.net/ Steven Vance

      As Sara pointed out in her comment above, Google Maps doesn’t provide real-time information. I know at least one app that does: http://www.transitgenie.com/

    • http://www.facebook.com/georgeaye George Aye

      I hope that Sara’s comment provide some clarity around our goals. Let me know if you have further questions. Thanks for commenting on our project.

  • http://twitter.com/AdamHerstein Adam Herstein

    What’s wrong with the existing CTA apps that use bus/train tracker? There’s already a lot of good ones out there. How will this one be any different?

    • http://www.stevevance.net/ Steven Vance

      From the way I understand it, the app’s “feature list” hasn’t been decided.

      Read Sara Aye’s comment above.

      • http://www.facebook.com/SaraAye Sara Aye

        To help people envision, we’ve just updated our Kickstarter video with a short brainstorm of some cool feature ideas.

  • what_eva

    As a software developer by trade, I’m pessimistic about this idea. Projects that start with no clear direction or goals rarely succeed. Hell, even projects with clear direction and goals often fail.

    • http://www.stevevance.net/ Steven Vance

      For my app, the Chicago Offline Bike Map, I’m sticking to two goals: bike lanes and bike trails + no features that require internet.

    • http://www.facebook.com/georgeaye George Aye

      Thank you for your comments and I fully agree—poorly planned projects are unlikely to succeed. Our goals are simpl: we want to develop the best mobile app for public transit. Where we’re less concrete is the feature list, but by gaining insights directly from bus and train riders, we believe we’ll go well beyond current transit apps and develop an amazing experience. As a designer by trade, we believe in the power of being user-centered, not user-led.

  • mucho mas

    I appreciate the enthusiasm but this seems like another misuse of Kickstarter and an attempt to generate way more money than needed to solve an issue. I love solving issues through creative design and bettering our lives with technology – but this is at best a replica of existing ideas that work well enough and does not truly improve anyone’s ability to use the CTA, based on the scant details specified. The “Crowd Designed” aspect of this also seems disingenuous as all good designers and software architects know that to maintain conceptual integrity, ONE person or a small team works much better than hundreds upon hundreds of ideas coming from people who have greatly differing mental models of what the system should do and the problem it aims to solve. I know this sounds cynical but I’m tired of the grifting going on through systems like Kickstarter, where polished and slick/cool packaged ideas get promoted in the hopes of going viral and in the hopes of generating much much more money than is needed to get things done.

    • http://www.stevevance.net/ Steven Vance

      I don’t think people are tricked into donating their money via Kickstarter.

  • http://twitter.com/mustafakidd muchomas

    I’ll post again since my last post has mysteriously disappeared. I’ll chalk this up to some random error and not to some more nefarious source.

    I’d just like to say that this seems like another misuse of Kickstarter and other similar programs where a slick package and marketing campaign, in the hopes of going viral and raising WAY more money than is needed, is wrapped around a poorly thought out or partially thought out idea. This, as best as I can tell given the scant details about the project, seems like a duplicate of existing applications and tools that already exist and do a fine job of helping people to use the CTA more efficiently. Even if those tools can and should be improved, the $100k cost is dramatically inflated based on my experience of being a software engineer for the past decade plus.

    Though I greatly appreciate the enthusiasm behind the project and absolutely agree that we can create a better world through design and technology, the concept of “crowd designed” software/systems is very difficult for me to see working successfully. In my opinion, all the best designs and architectures are maintained and conceived by a very small team (or even just one person) to ensure that conceptual integrity is maintained. The chatter of thousands of ideas generated by countless people with no understanding of the inner workings of the system and different mental models of what the system does or the problems it aims to solve, is a recipe for what, in the industry parlance, is generally referred to as “A Shitstorm”.

    Yours
    m

    • http://www.stevevance.net/ Steven Vance
      • http://twitter.com/mustafakidd muchomas

        Ya, my bad entirely.
        As for kickstarter- just my opinion that it has left a bad taste in people’s mouths – not judging your app and apologies if it came out that way. I think there could be better ways to reach out to locals and generate interest and support, personally, other than making an ask via a fundraising site. Again, just my two cents, which in today’s economy is worth approximately 1.5 cents and dropping fast.

        Yours
        M

        • http://www.facebook.com/SaraAye Sara Aye

          Ha, don’t worry, your opinion’s value might raise again soon! We definitely agree with other ways to reach locals: for example, we’ll be approaching local businesses near CTA stations to see if they want to “Sponsor a Station.” We think that handing out a paper map with their business “on the map” will help the biz, help commuters w/o smartphones, and generally increase goodwill towards transit.

          We’re also going to be handing out flyers outside CTA stations – in a word, doing the Kickstarter thing old school. Why – because the internet isn’t local enough! This project is ALL ABOUT CHICAGO and we have to search around every corner of this city.

          Thanks again for joining the conversation, and we hope you’ll consider the project again. Maybe you want to help us flyer? :)

        • http://www.stevevance.net/ Steven Vance

          I’m curious if you’ve had any experience with IndieGogo or The Point (pre-Groupon business)?

          I am considering using a fundraising website for a project or two I have in the works.

    • http://www.facebook.com/georgeaye George Aye

      Thanks for your thorough comments. We welcome thoughtful feedback. We believe that great developers are not cheap. Getting any developer is easy, but finding a great one is difficult. Also, our advisors have strongly reminded us that if we only have enough money to create the app, but no budget for updates and maintenance then we are fooling ourselves. Our estimates for the cost of development has been vetted by a number of our advisors, but if you would be willing to helping us find a great, but cheap developer, we would more than welcome the assistance.

  • http://www.facebook.com/SaraAye Sara Aye

    Hey folks, good questions all and we’re happy to answer. Thank you for bringing up these points – and we’ll put them in the project FAQs as well.

    We think that existing transit apps leave some big things out. The main one is that few apps integrate bus and train. Chicago is a city of multi-modal riders, and we don’t know any that integrate bus and train well…except Google. But the issue there is that Google doesn’t use real-time arrival data, just scheduled times – which are not exactly helpful when you’re deciding when to walk out the door.

    So people jump from app to app. It’s a clunky experience. Plus, as far as we’ve heard, iOS 6 won’t have an in-built transit app, so Chicagoans are going to have to find their own third-party app anyway. We think the need is there, and the city is ready.

    We’re using Kickstarter because it’s a place to both raise money and find people. An awesome app does cost a lot, and the best way that we could imagine to raise that kind of money was to offer an engaging educational experience. Hey, we are teachers, and our teaching is really unique. Do you have any other ideas for how we might a) raise the money and b) find the participants?

    John Tolva said it best: We couldn’t do this project alone, even if we had a million bucks. “It’s not a man-hour thing, it’s a perspective thing.” We want to invite lots of voices to the table for perspective. Ultimately, we are the team that filters, leads and creates the final solution. We just don’t want to get ahead of ourselves.

    I’m sorry if you don’t personally connect with the project, and I appreciate the review however harsh; it helps us to learn. I hope you’ll at least reconsider participating, as the more informed voices we have, the better.