Start-up of the week

Dude, where’s my bus?

The new GPS-driven app Netbus is Waze without the car

NetBus screenshot (Photo credti: Courtesy)
NetBus screenshot (Photo credti: Courtesy)

Remember the frustrations of life before Waze and other traffic apps — getting lost, getting stuck in unexpected traffic?

Well, what Waze did for cars, Israeli start-up NetBus does for public transportation. It’s one of the most-downloaded apps in the Israeli App Store, and is used well over a million times a month to tell commuters where their bus is, whether it’s going to be late, and when they should leave their homes or offices to catch the next one.

The app now works for the vast majority of the buses on Israel’s roads.

“Every bus has a GPS chip that tells the operator and the Transportation Ministry exactly where it is,” said David Vatine, who co-founded NetBus with three army buddies who were tired of waiting around for the bus to show up. “We get the information from the ministry, which gathers the data on 13 of the 16 bus companies in Israel. We match the GPS data with information on bus stop locations, traffic information, stoplights, average historical times for passengers to get on and off the bus at stops, and others factors that could cause delay, and show users when the bus they want to take will be at the stop they want to take it from.”

All that information, said Vatine, is logged and available either from private or public databases, and the algorithms developed by the NetBus team delivers a result that is, he says, “99% accurate.” Users who have the app — it’s free — can time their walk to the bus stop, arriving just moments before the bus is supposed to get there and saving themselves time, energy, and frustration.

NetBus is planning two big changes in the coming months. One will be an expansion of the app to include other modes of public transportation, such as trains, ferries, planes, taxis, and even (possibly) the availability of bikes at docking stations for public bike-sharing programs, like the one in Tel Aviv. The second will be an “export” version of NetBus for use in cities outside of Israel. The maps and some of the traffic and other information used by NetBus are based on Google Maps, so all that remains is to gather the real-time information about the location of buses and other public conveyances — all of which, Vatine said, also transmit GPS information.

“We are working with transportation agencies, companies, and a large aggregator of this kind of data, and we expect the full version of NetBus to be available abroad in the next six months,” said Vatine. The app is expected to work more or less anywhere Google Maps reaches and local authorities record transportation information.

The full app will have a social networking aspect, allowing commuters to communicate with each other. Crowdsourced information on accidents, delays, crowded buses, trains, and stops will enhance accuracy, and users will also be able to rate the skill level, patience, and civility of bus drivers — so the world will know right away if a driver pulls away just as a passenger, out of breath from running, is stuck outside as the bus closes its doors in his face.

Vatine and his partners — Snir Machluf, Shimon Tohami, and Liav Sagron — had plenty of time to think about the features they wanted for NetBus during the long hours they themselves were stuck waiting for buses as they served in the IDF. The IDF, in fact, was instrumental in getting the app going, said Vatine. “We started out using our own money, which for all us came in the form of the discharge bonus we got when we left the army.”

They since have moved on up, first getting angel funding, and later convincing a venture capital firm to invest. The company is now about to embark on another funding quest, hoping to raise enough money to complete its full-featured international version.

“We are certainly not the first or only people ever to get frustrated by a late bus, but apparently we are the first to do something about it,” said Vatine, saying that while there were apps that did some of the things NetBus did (like displaying schedules or even listing delays), none had the features of his app, which shows on a map how far away the bus is and when it was expected to arrive to such a degree of accuracy. (The closest app in terms of features is HopStop, which emphasizes maps and directions, and does not use GPS to update bus locations).

Vatine said he and his pals knew NetBus would be successful, but not this successful. But it’s gratifying to see the progress of the project, considering how much of themselves they put into it. “We put everything into NetBus, all our money and our time. I even gave up my girlfriend so I could work on this. We can only hope it is as successful abroad as it is here.”

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