Catoe: NextBus beta "doesn't make sense for Metro"
Metro General Manager John Catoe opened his chat today with a statement rejecting the option of opening up a NextBus beta test before the official launch:
There has been a lot of talk lately about Next Bus, which is a good thing because we expect Next Bus to be back up and running this July.Whether Catoe is right or wrong about the beta, we should keep in mind one thing. Metro has been working hard on this system, and we should applaud their efforts. As a commenter from Phoenix pointed out, some transit agencies aren't even working on such systems at all.
The return of NextBus is highly anticipated by many bus riders, and by many who were able to gain access to an internal test site over the last few months. We have restricted access to that test site, which has disappointed a number of people. Those people who were using the system have reported in blogs that the system was working well for them, and I'm pleased to hear that.
However, I have to take a much wider view of NextBus and the accuracy of its predictions. Launching a "beta" version may make sense for software developers, it doesn't make sense for Metro. Before NextBus is fielded again, I have to be sure that it will work well for all of our bus riders. If we allow access to a test site, then we are in effect launching that site and service. That means we need to be ready to give anyone and everyone using that site our full attention if they have problems and complaints. All the disclaimers in the world won't make any practical difference. If we were to allow access to the site, then, potentially, there would be hundreds of thousands trying to use something that just isn't ready for prime time, yet. That means a flood of complaints, and we take every complaint seriously. If we allow the system to be used before we're confident that its ready, then, although, it may be convenient for some, it just won't work for everyone the way we envision it should. I would also take more resources, both financially and in terms of manpower that we aren't ready to commit yet.
When the system went off-line on October 31, 2007, we estimated that it would take up to 18 months to bring it back. That estimate was fairly accurate. Just be patient a few more months, and the service will be back up. There's a saying "measure twice and cut once." That's what we are doing with NextBus to make sure we have everything in place to meet our goal of 95% accuracy on bus arrival times. This will be a significant improvement, and worth the wait.
A beta test would generate some complaints, yes. But it would also generate useful feedback Metro ought to be interested in hearing. It's always cheaper to make changes early on. Once Metro launches, we'll inevitably discover some small flaws, and have to wait longer to fix those.
It's too bad Metro reflexively clamped down on the system, assuming it would generate complaints instead of waiting to see if it did. Leaving it up would have been a great opportunity to hear feedback while maintaining a plausible deniability. It'd be terrific if they now offered to give passwords to the NextBus test system to all the people who signed the petition and a limited number of others. Still, Catoe does have a point that public access will, to some extent, distract staff. The question is whether they can limit the distraction and gain benefits, such as valuable feedback, that outweigh the distraction.
Ultimately, this system will launch soon. When it does, if it works well, we should thank Catoe and Metro's technology team for making it happen. Their initial reaction may reveal a risk-averse approach to decisionmaking, but at least they aren't entirely innovation-averse.
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