Urged by unreliable public transport and a desperate need to get to class on time, Devin de Vries and Chris King started an innovative company that connects and allows public transport users, operators and cities, through real-time information, to effectively manage their transport. We had a chat with Devin de Vries, co-founder of WhereIsMyTransport about the story, creativity and people behind the company that seeks to solve one of South Africa’s greatest sources of frustration – public transport.
Devin de Vries
Devin de Vries
BizcommunityTell us the WhereIsMyTransport story.
Devin de Vries: In 2007, Chris King and I were studying at the University of Cape Town, pursuing our honours degrees in Information Systems. The sprawling campus is plagued by a parking shortage, and most students use the free university shuttle service. After one too many days of standing in the rain, waiting for a shuttle that never seemed to arrive, we decided that this would be the focus of our final project: solving the problem of unreliable transport and inaccessible transport data, that plagued our community.
For our University project, we (Chris and I, along with three others) moved into a house and spent nine months sleeping, eating, and working together. We earned the highest final mark ever given by the department, and the title of national champions of the South African Microsoft Imagine Cup. Now christened ‘Team Smile,’ we presented our solution in Paris alongside 300 other teams at the 2008 Imagine Cup Finals, a worldwide technology and entrepreneurship challenge that drew over 200,000 entrants that year.
Making Imagine Cup history, we reached the final round of three separate categories: taking second in Rural Innovation, making it to the top twelve of the heavily contested Software Design category, and being one of three teams selected for the Innovation Accelerator award. This sent us to Silicon Valley for a week of mentorship, coaching, and pitching to angel investors, which cemented our belief in what we had done.
Silicon Valley, however, wasn’t the place for us – we were and are still determined to use our solution at home, and in other developing nations that struggle with burgeoning urbanization, insufficient infrastructure, and chaotic decentralisation of their transport systems. In short, we wanted to make Cape Town and Lagos as accessible, integrated, and efficient as London or Tokyo.
We set up shop in a converted garage and started work. As the team has grown from two to over twenty, from a garage to an office space, the most valuable thing we have done is listen and learn from the people we want to help: government officials, operators, commuters, industry analysts, technological leaders, and urban specialists. Our initial direction, which was hardware heavy and involved direct tracking of vehicles, has pivoted several times in favour of a big-data, platform-based approach, which is when our other co-founder Dave New came on board.
BizcommunityWhat makes WhereIsMyTransport unique?
De Vries: WhereIsMyTransport is unique for a number of reasons, the first of which is that we are dedicated to building solutions specifically for emerging cities. Most technology that cities like Cape Town try to adopt have been produced in Europe or the US and aren’t fit for purpose here. We also approach the issue of public transport from an ecosystem-wide view, providing a solution that speaks to the needs of cities, commuters, and operators at every stage of their own transport data lifecycle.
Over the course of the Imagine Cup and the last seven years, our vision has changed from a simple app to alert riders of delays or schedules, to a comprehensive, integrated platform that makes formal and informal public transport data available for cities, operators, and developers alike. There was no simple data stream for an app to tap into, so we designed and built tools to help operators of every size and type capture their data and a format that can connect with all their existing systems.
Being able to connect to any system an operator is using, from a state-of-the-art Siemens system to a simple tracking device, means everyone can join the platform. We’re also developing tools to bring operators without any systems, such as informal transport operators, online too. No one has yet been able to make informal transport as accessible, understandable, and usable as formal transport, but we’re almost there.
Our journey taught us that what operators and cities really need is all that data – their whole movement networks available so they can learn and plan from the past. Having a centralised platform for data makes analytics easy, so cities and operators can make data-driven decisions about how to serve commuters or evaluate their services.
Most importantly, though, the most unique thing about WhereIsMyTransport is our team. Despite leaving the garage and growing to 30 people, we’ve never lost sight of our roots or the real problem we want to solve. As cliché as it sounds, we’re a like-minded family that just wants to make it easier for people to get where they want to go.
BizcommunityWhat has been the biggest challenge in getting WhereIsMyTransport off the ground?
De Vries: One of the biggest challenges for us has been growing and securing investment in the South African entrepreneurial environment, which can be very restrictive for small companies trying to grow. Ultimately, the company transitioned to being a UK-based company which enabled us to raise our investment.
The biggest challenge, though, has been convincing early adopters to give the platform a chance. Making somewhat abstract technical concepts tangible takes time, and many of the operators and cities we speak to are just starting out in terms of leveraging technology to their advantage. We were very lucky that Transport for Cape Town came on board early and understood our vision; as we develop more products and learn from their needs, they’re able to help us showcase our work and demonstrate to other cities how powerful the platform can be.
BizcommunityWhat has been the biggest highlight in the WhereIsMyTransport journey so far?
De Vries: Probably the biggest highlight so far was October 2014, when we released the first multi-modal journey planning in Africa. That feature debuted in the TCT App, which we developed for Transport for Cape Town; it is also now available in our app Findmyway. Users can finally enter their destination and see results across all available modes of transport-different buses, trains, walking, even Uber.
BizcommunityHow do you keep the creative juices flowing at the office?
De Vries: Our growing family is tight-knit, focused, and of course, fun. We designed our office (our ‘campus’) and ‘campus life’ around making life for our team frictionless, so they can focus on the things that interest and energise them. This means things like free lunches and table tennis, but also laundry service, transport and meals for people who work late, and other practical help that takes the pressure off the mundane.
Most importantly, though, we all love what we do and are passionate about solving real problems that effect real people. We work hard to stay in touch with the problem we want to change, and to not get distracted by the strategy or technology. If you come to work each morning and are surrounded by people who are energetic, dedicated, and just plain excited to really do something great, it’s hard not to be excited too.