MAKING THE INVISIBLE VISIBLE
Urban mobility is an increasing problem in developing regions, with public transport unwieldy and inaccessible. Startup WhereIsMyTransport is looking to change that, and we spoke to CEO Devin de Vries about its mission to map the transport systems of the world’s biggest developing cities
Author Daniel Brigham
There’s a good chance you will be reading this on public transport. Perhaps on a commuter train to work, or in an Uber to meet a friend. Maybe your journey is a little late, or your seat isn’t quite as comfortable as you’d like. But you know, despite any minor inconveniences, it’s getting you from A to B with little fuss. Not everyone is quite so lucky to be able to travel easily and reliably. Globally, around two billion people living in emerging markets rely on public transport to get to work, get food on the table, and live a fulfilling life. While large developed cities have streamlined transport systems with apps, websites, and public screens all overflowing with real-time information, the picture is very different in emerging markets, where getting from A to B is, at best, complicated due to a lack of mapping and, at worst, impossible without information. Without good, reliable access to public transport, social and urban mobility gets much tougher; out of reach for billions of people. A 2018 UN report projected that by 2030 the world is likely to have 43 megacities with a population of over 10 million people, most of which are classed as being in developing regions. Its research also found that 68% of the world’s population will live in urban areas by 2050, up from today’s 55%. Urban mobility has never been so important. South African startup WhereIsMyTransport is actively trying to remove the barrier that denies urban mobility to billions of people. Using data and technology, its mission is to make commuting more reliable, accessible and easier for people who need it most. CEO and co-founder Devin de Vries neatly calls it “making the invisible visible”, and his company is off to an excellent start. It has mapped 40 cities in 27 countries across Africa, Asia and Latin America, with the cities including Mexico City, Dhaka, Dar es Salaam, and Johannesburg.
WhereIsMyTransport calls itself the “world’s foremost data collection practice”, and it’s hard to dispute: it combines on-the-ground data collection methodology with technology, using formal and informal public transport data to make public transportation information available digitally. It has built its own custom tools for mapping complex public transport systems, with an integrated mobility platform that uses proprietary algorithms to turn data into information for commuters, as well as reports for riders, cities, governments and NGOs. It was recently selected from almost 800 applicants across 54 countries to join the Elemental Excelerator Cohort, a global climate-tech accelerator, while earlier this year it received strategic investment from Google, Toyota, and Nedbank. Fittingly, WhereIsMyTransport is going places, fast. WhereIsMyTransport started off when de Vries, a “software engineer turned business builder”, was challenged in his third year at the University of Cape Town to take on a real-world problem utilising tech. A number of ideas were on the table, but he felt the strongest potential for growth and impact was in public transportation and urban mobility.
Devin de Vries, CEO and co-founder, WhereIsMyTransport
“In many ways, I think urban mobility is to people what blood flow is to our bodies. It's vital,” says de Vries. “We want to ensure that all society experiences freedom of movement, regardless of income brackets and social status. We want people to access the things that make their lives whole: being able to participate in the community, being able to prosper by having access to opportunities. “It's no secret that unemployment is incredibly high across these markets, and urban mobility and access to mobility allows people to access opportunities to change their position. It's the proverbial equivalent of enabling a person to fish as opposed to giving them a fish.” Simply getting your children to school, or looking for better employment, or seeing friends and family, are often dependent on using public transport. People in emerging markets don’t have the option of calling an Uber; they can’t see how one bus route connects to another; sometimes walking is out of the question due to safety concerns. So good public transport access is a great accelerator for not only broadening horizons and community well-being, but also enabling economic and social growth in underdeveloped areas. De Vries ran with the university project, and WhereIsMyTransport started in Cape Town in 2015, using 13 data collectors to track bus routes, gathering information such as location and speed, as well as fares, waiting times and stops near major locations. It has grown rapidly over the last few years, and now relies on client requests, ranging from governments, local authorities, transport operators, and financial institutions, through to big tech companies, all wanting to utilise the data that WhereIsMyTransport collects.
Dar es Salaam, Tanzania
When the request comes in, WhereIsMyTransport establishes a local partner and hires a local team to start mapping and collating the transport information. The team, usually of around 60 to 100 people depending on the size of the city, is trained in their respective roles before being sent into the field to start mapping. It usually takes a month to get everything collated, with the information as complete as possible: not just times and routes, but entrances, exits, pathways, levels, overpasses, and undercarriages where possible. De Vries believes using a local team is vital to the authenticity of WhereIsMyTransport’s data. “Looking at Dhaka in Bangladesh, we were met with the fact that in these markets, people differentiate between transportation services; the pricing is differentiated based on the nature of the service – is it standing, is it sitting, is it air-conditioned? And all these things actually impact the service. “So we had to develop the tools and technologies to be able to handle the very dynamic nature of what you're met with when you touch down on the ground. Because you actually have team members that are from the communities mapping their own hometown, they will also tell you that informally.” De Vries, who has experience of both sides of the economic and urban mobility divide having grown up in South Africa, says that many people from developed regions are often oblivious to the need for reliable mapping in most big cities. The reaction also includes shock that local authorities haven’t already taken the lead on this. After all, where social mobility exists, economic growth follows. “I think the reality is that these markets are contending with different challenges to those of developed markets,” he says. “I'll never forget, there was a conversation I had one day with a transportation minister in East Africa, and it was one of the major capitals, and we were speaking to him about the importance of access to urban mobility information and having regular public transport services and integrating their formal and informal systems.
“In many ways, I think urban mobility is to people what blood flow is to our bodies. It's vital”
“His response to that was ‘absolutely, urban mobility is at the top of our agenda, it's incredibly important. However, we also have to contend with…’, and he just started to list all of the other categories: really basic human rights and basic human needs that exist within these markets that also are competing for attention and resources and time.” However, de Vries believes the ongoing success of WhereIsMyTransport – and the increase in urbanisation globally – is opening minds to the necessity of mobility for all. “At the very least, when we focus on the area of urban mobility, I think there is a broader understanding now of the wider impact and important role that it plays in furthering economic growth and social growth within the market. And to that extent, I think we've been able to raise the awareness of that at the baseline.” Despite mapping 40 cities already, de Vries says there is a long way to go. He wants the 50 biggest emerging cities mapped and, perhaps even more importantly, he wants to ensure that the data in each city is regularly updated. As he puts it, he wants the data they capture to go from a picture of a city’s transport system, to a medium-resolution video, to a 4K video. “You're touching on something that you can see from my face I'm really excited about,” he says. “Because we're now able to have multiple clients per city licence, we're actually able to leave a team behind in the market. And what that team does is not only are they continuously updating the datasets but they are also building out local networks, so that we have direct relationships with the transport operators, with the city government, with the informal transport owners, even with drivers. So it's kind of like we've moved from this era of taking a photo of the cities to maintaining what you might call a medium resolution video.”
Having the resource and tech to update on a weekly cycle also means WhereIsMyTransport is now able to provide data in the B2C and B2B realm, with technology companies wanting to develop products and services around mobility analysis, location-based services and mapping products. Google joining the Series A funding of $7.5 million that WhereIsMyTransport received in February this year was a powerful statement that tech giants have faith in de Vries’s company having real value in previously untapped markets. “To see global leaders like Google take to heart the potential for their products to transform life in emerging markets is really encouraging,” de Vries says. “And the very deliberate intent and humility and genuine ethical design intention with which they've approached building the solutions for these markets, and improving the experience for users, is also what's been really encouraging for me. “It’s been really nice for our team to start working a lot more closely with companies that we regard as the ones that get to change the world if they choose to turn their attention in that direction. It's a privilege to be a part of that, and to be working with a team that gets to contribute to bettering the lives of people in emerging markets.” When de Vries was challenged at university to use technology to solve a real-world problem, few could have imagined the global impact his idea would be having in such a short space of time. “It doesn't take a lot to just lift your eyes, look around you and see incredible opportunity for change; positive change for impact on society,” he says. “And I feel as a technologist and a citizen, that it’s incumbent upon us, if we have the tools and the talents, to affect that change.”