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.
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.
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.
Grid Chicago is a blog about sustainable transportation matters, projects and culture in Chicago and Illinois, by John Greenfield and Steven Vance since June 2011. We switched to writing at Streetsblog Chicago in January 2013.
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