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App Helps Boston Parents Track School Buses through Blizzards

The Where's My School Bus app allows parents to track a student's school bus through their smartphone.

Not knowing where a child is can be harrowing for a parent. Not knowing where a child is in a blizzard can be even more frightening.

This was the situation Boston Public Schools (BPS) found themselves in during the winter of 2010 when the East Coast was rocked by a series of snowstorms that cut power to hundreds of thousands and delayed school buses for hours. The series of storms, labeled “Snowmaggedon”, left an indelible impression on the school system that later turned into a call to action.

Chris Osgood, co-chair of the Boston Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, explained to Government Technology that the city's experience during the storms led to the creation of a mobile app for parents called Where’s My School Bus?, that rapidly and securely relays student bus locations to parents. The app came about with the help of Boston's 2011 Code for America (CfA) fellowship, a program designed by the civic tech organization to outfit municipalities with technical support for IT improvement projects.

Boston CfA fellow Joel Mahoney said the team’s first task was to triage the city’s needs and pair the highest priority needs with possible tech solutions. This analysis put parent and student travel communication at the top of the list.

“The idea was to take this very complex but repetitive process and be able to answer that question, ‘Where’s my child?’” Mahoney said.

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The essential challenge, Mahoney explained was to automate a series of tasks: transportation staff authenticating a parent’s identity, finding a child in the school’s database, locating that student’s ID number, locating the appropriate bus using GPS, and last, relaying that bus location to the parent.

It was a labor-intensive process, Mahoney said. Considering the limited amounts of staff and phone lines, it was nearly impossible to complete when multiplied by hundreds of callers per hour.


Data Security Concerns

After a collaborative brainstorming process between the city and the CfA team, a proposal for the app was sent to BPS for the go-ahead. While the green light did eventually come, it wouldn’t be until the app had been well vetted and fears around data security were addressed.

Scott Silverman, a CfA designer within the fellowship and currently an interaction designer at Airbnb, said school officials raised significant concerns about the app.

“There was a lot of concern coming from many different angles, a lot of privacy, security and regulatory concerns,” Silverman said.

BPS leaders loved the concept of the app and understood the need for it; however, Silverman said there were fears the app may be hacked and its sensitive data, including the identity and location of minors, could be stolen and misused. BPS also worried that the app would be too unwieldy for IT staff to install and manage.

“The point that we were trying to get across ... was you can have highly sensitive data and you can have a highly secure and private way of making that data available to just the right people,” Silverman said.

“Not only did we create greater efficiency and access to this data but we also improved security behind it … putting the data behind a firewall with a username and a password that could only be authenticated by the parent.”

Convinced that the app could be secure, BPS officials consented and an initial version was created in the course of a weekend. Later, after some tinkering, the app would launch as an official pilot app for parents.

Polishing the Product

Since the app's successful launch, Osgood reported that it’s garnered acclaim from parents and been fully embraced by Boston and BPS as a whole. According to Osgood, only a year after the pilot was released, the city and BPS invested $25,000 in a contract with Boston development firm Vermonster, to enhance the app further with a more user-friendly interface and an easier sign-on method for parents. Plans are now under way to enhance the app further with travel time estimates.

Officials report more than 1,000 uses of the app per day, a number that Osgood calls significant.

Mahoney and Silverman report that validation for the open source app has also come from the commercial market. Zonar, the GPS provider for BPS buses, has since released its own version of the Where’s My School Bus app called ZPass+ that has been used in the Freeport School District of Sarver, Pa., and others.

"I think that's incredibly validating. I think it's exciting and I think it proves the point that there is a real need for this type of service,” Silverman said of ZPass+.

As for Boston and its schools, Osgood said stakeholders are pleased to be providing a useful service to parents which grants them peace of mind and helps avoid long and frigid waits at bus stops.

“Our hope for parents is that in a small way this is making their day-to-day experience better, and over time, making it even easier to engage with the district as a whole,” Osgood said.

Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.
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