Should you live in a developing city, your daily commute might be as straightforward as a half-hour’s train ride to and from work, or it might be more tedious than that and involve a two-hour bus journey with three changeovers. If all goes well, you arrive at work on time. However, there are so many variables beyond your control, and when one route is held up, like dominoes, you could arrive 45 minutes late, soaked in sweat from the stress of the saga.
In 2019, research found that British commuters spent an average of 115 hours in traffic a year. This hold-up has a significant impact on the economy, as well as every commuter’s lifestyle, and the problem resides in not having reliable backup plans for travellers to get to work on time.
Understanding how routes for public transport impact the quality of life is at the core of start-up business WhereIsMyTransport, and its Founder and CEO, Devin de Vries, is on a mission to improve commuting gaps in emerging markets. “The reality is,” begins Devin, “in an emerging market, most people travel for five hours daily on public transit and those trips tend to be changeovers with multiple destinations. This results in anxiety that affects your life, and it’s pretty significant,” he says.
This impact is even greater in developing cities. “In first-world regions, over 98 percent of journeys go according to plan but in an emerging market, that number is only 50 percent, which means that a primary need as a commuter is to have at least three backup plans.” For Devin, this was a meaningful problem to tackle as it affects approximately three billion people and is what his company specializes in. “There are already apps like Citymapper, Transit, and Moovit that are contributing significantly to secure a commuter’s plan A. However, we want to strengthen developing cities because that’s where one of the biggest disparities in the economies lies.”
Alongside his data development, the tech-savvy CEO and his team created the app Rumbo, which operates similarly to apps like Citymapper found in developed regions. Devin shares that creating these sorts of solutions is the source of his passion for software engineering. “I genuinely love the act of thinking about the product; how are we meeting individual needs? How can we get closer to meeting people where they are and materially improve their daily experience? If you had to travel five hours every day, being able to give you back even ten minutes of your time, or reducing your level of anxiety around whether your bus is coming, it makes a massive difference.”
For those living in developed cities, each public transport route relies on a corpus of information constantly being managed by the city or government. “In our case, while we would’ve loved to start with the consumer solution, what we need to solve first is the absence of data infrastructure across global markets, because in developing cities that data is not available in the first instance. That’s something that we have worked on since we started in 2015.”
Data at WhereIsMyTransport propels the business forward. “Our data management platform is a collection of products that allows us to go into any market from scratch and build a complete view of the transit network. We literally ride the entire network of a city up to three hours outside of the central business district.
“That data is then piped to a web application where automated checks happen. Having to map 51 cities around the world results in millions of kilometres of data, and we also rely on user-driven actions to train the computers to perform any of those actions automatically. It’s a bit like a journalist cross-checking facts to ensure everything balances. Ultimately, we end up with a validated data set that is then published for the client. What is somewhat unique for us is the art of keeping that data up to date. You can imagine public transport networks are incredibly dynamic, so we’ve also developed the ability to monitor tech changes and amend the data, which aids us in sources of detection and information that lead to refreshed data,” he shares.
The team also factors in details of the state of transit, and how that data varies in each city and impacts the quality of the journey. “When I think about what it looked like when we were focused on Southern Africa back in 2017, it has evolved drastically. We started making our way into the Middle East and southern Europe, and then into South Asia, and then Latin America at the same time. It’s obvious to state that we all move on objects with wheels but the things that dictate our decision-making can actually be fundamentally quite different.” For example, in some markets, some vehicles are standing only, while others might be seated. Then there’s express versus non-express, air conditioning versus cranking that window all the way down – each of these contributes to the price of the transport.
The success of the company’s in-depth research has enabled it to onboard big clients like Google and the World Bank. Devin explains that Google uses the business’ informal transit data in places like Mexico City, where hundreds of millions of people have benefitted from the information for transport queries. “In Mexico City, there are 24 million people and I think between 18 million and 20 million of them are public transport users who needed info around traffic and how it impacted their travel time.
“Regarding the World Bank, we have worked in the Middle East and East Africa supporting mapping and data collections over the last few months. We have also done work in Sierra Leone and unlocked $50 million of investment for recapitalization. This improved the public transport infrastructure and resulted in 200,000 people having greater access to the city centre. Personally, it’s a wonderful feeling to know this data is having a great impact on individuals’ lives.”
According to Devin, the next billion users are the largest untapped reservoir of consumers on the planet. As they learn more about the internet and its capabilities, the data will continue to serve as a conduit to the uncapped potential for the company’s growth. “Through the work we are trying to do, we can definitely improve the quality of the experience, remove any of the anxiety, improve reliability and give people more certainty for their day and I feel that is a really valuable thing to do, which is really exciting for me personally and obviously for the business.”
Between handling investor relationships and nurturing business strategies, Devin is committed to the solutions WhereIsMyTransport has to offer, and the positive change its work will encourage. “In my opinion, if you have the benefit of privilege, whether through education or access to resources, it is incumbent on you to use it for good. I wish more of the world worked this way, but at least I feel that is a core value with us as a business and the team of people we attract. We want to contribute something to a market that needs support. I feel there are already several companies trying to continue to fight over market share in the developed markets, but with the three billion people waiting for a solution to at least manage their whole city, we are going to focus that energy there where we can really benefit the individual.”
WhereIsMyTransport has come a long way in the last six years, and in bringing the conversation to a close, Devin is aware that his fortunate upbringing in life has granted him access to excellent opportunities, and he is simply looking to reinvest his privilege to help make the world a little better. “If your heart is already in the right place and you know the change you want to make in the world, follow the money and then take that money and use it to do good. What does follow the money mean? It doesn’t mean selling out, but it does mean finding a way to pursue making a living that allows you to capitalize on delivering a great, positive impact.”
Another piece of advice Devin imparts is to fall in love with the problem, and not the solution, which he learnt from CEO, Uri Levin. “Often, engineers tend to romanticize complexity, but sometimes that runs the risk of falling in love with what you are building as opposed to being in love with the problem you are trying to solve. To use a reference from the movie Inception, where Leonardo DiCaprio’s character would have a totem to center him, I feel that is a very good totem for people building businesses; remember the problem, and then be flexible about your solution and your approach. Don’t become so enamoured with the solution that you end up incorrectly protecting it, even though it’s drifting further and further away from actually solving the problem you set up to resolve,” he concludes.