Blown To Bits

The MBTA Goes High-Tech

Friday, August 29th, 2008 by Harry Lewis

The Boston area public transportation system, known as the MBTA or the “T,” got some bad publicity¬†recently¬†for hauling several MIT students into court because they were planning to explain publicly the security ¬†deficiencies of the T’s fare card system. (See my previous blog posts here, here, and here.) Last week,the T finally admitted that the students were right: the security of the fare card system was poor.

In a gesture to use the latest in communication technologies to improve riders’ experience, the T announced that it is working on a new system that will announce the arrival time of the next train¬†on video screens, and maybe even text-message that information to riders’ cell phones. The WCVB report explains, “The MBTA is currently seeking bids for the multimillion-dollar project, which is still several years away from implementation.”

Running any public transportation system is hard work. The systems are antiques, funding is variable, unions can retard progress. So any modernization should be celebrated.

BUT: When I heard this story it reminded me of something. I checked my old email and found this exchange from October 1998 — ten years ago — with David Malan, who was at the time a senior in Harvard College:

David to me:

I thought I’d show¬†you something I finished writing this weekend. ¬†‚Ķ¬† it’s a shuttle-schedule-type program ‚Ķ¬†it’s been used by 150+ students already! ¬†:)

That is, it enabled Harvard students to track the shuttle buses that run around campus so they could decide whether it was faster to walk than to wait. Me to David:

It is neat! Congratulations for your enlightened application of technology in the service of the citizenry.

David went on to get his PhD at Harvard and is now on our faculty, teaching our very popular introductory computer science course. If the T wants to hire someone who is reliable and skilled, and a decade ago did something on a smaller scale that is very much like what they are planning, I’d highly recommend him! And I’ll bet he’d charge fewer multis of millions than the T will wind up paying.

Here is a 1998 Crimson story about Shuttleboy. To be fair, it wasn’t really the same thing as what the T wants now; couldn’t have been, in those days before ubiquitous cell phones and global positioning systems. But text messaging was added to the Harvard system a year ago, and as you can see by looking here, it also now has GPS and shows you where the shuttles are on a Google map.

This problem just isn’t hard enough for the big play the the T is giving it.

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