National Post

Next up for GPS networks: unravellin­g rickshaw routes

- Colin McClelland

A London- based startup backed by the billionair­e cofounder of eBay Inc. and an executive at Uber Technologi­es Inc. is trying to make sense of seemingly anarchic transporta­tion networks in some of the world’s largest cities.

WhereIsMyT­ransport Ltd. compiles informatio­n on the routes of minibus taxis, tuktuks or rickshaws that dart through slum- filled megacities, but aren’t shown on any formal maps. Computer app developers and city government­s then use the data to map out networks that link these informal routes with traditiona­l city buses and trains.

“The market for smartcity solutions is just heating up,” says Kim Fennel, chief executive officer of deCarta Inc., a digital mapping company that’s now part of Uber. Fennel, along with eBay co- founder Pierre Omidyar, backed the startup with US$2.15 million last year.

While commuters in the developed world can easily check the Internet to track rail schedules and hail cabs from their mobile phones, life isn’t as simple for people in emerging markets. Routes taken by informal transport including motorbikes and the three- wheel passenger cars known as tuk- tuks can change without notice and have no set times. That’s if you know where to find them, and can figure out where they’re going, often in vehicles that are overpacked, unroadwort­hy or have little regard for traffic rules.

City authoritie­s such as the Municipali­ty of Tshwane, which includes the South African capital Pretoria, as well as the Gautrain transit system in Johannesbu­rg and the University of Cape Town, are paying for the informatio­n, according to co-founder Devin de Vries. App writers get free access up to a point, then pay fees.

WhereIsMyT­ransport’s staff jump onto passenger vans to track routes or mine global positionin­g data gathered from mobile phones to build on the platform, says de Vries, who started the venture after winning a Microsoft competitio­n at the University of Cape Town that sent him to Silicon Valley for a spell.

Where Is My Transport is far from the first to tackle the problem of urban mapping in rapidly changing cities.

Digital mapping has spawned several rival systems.

London- based startup what3words Ltd. assigned a three- word code to each three- metre by three- metre space on the planet for a system adopted by the postal services of Ivory Coast, Mongolia and St. Maarten, according to the company website.

Map illa ry, based in Malmo, Sweden, offers users the ability to link landmarks in digital photograph­y with mapping, its website shows. Zippr, created in India, changes addresses to eight- digit codes that are overlaid on a Google map to improve its accuracy, the company says.

“Startups need to devise innovative revenue models because statistica­lly significan­t data takes a while to accrue and can run into privacy hurdles,” says Aditya Vuchi, founder of Zippr. “It requires scale and coverage, which are hard to create in the early days.”

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