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Science and Technology

Plotting CityMapper’s global routes

Caitlin E McDonald
The journey planner app makes navigating big cities easy - but how would it fare in places with less defined transportation systems?

I’ve long been an admirer of Citymapper‘s easy-to-use, stylish public transportation app for getting around London. Recently, the app seamlessly transitioned me from London to San Francisco and then to New York. No other gizmo in my life, not even my Google calendar, could so easily smooth the edges of transatlantic, transcontinental, trans-time-zone travel.

Granted, Citymapper only works in a limited number of cities around the globe (currently 22, as stated on their website.) Not everywhere has the right confluence of well-defined infrastructure with easily available data, a sufficiently wealthy population with smartphones, and public interest to power Citymapper. The anthropologist in me is curious about how an app like this highlights the growing urban-rural divide and the emergent technical skills gap that currently separates the global elite from everyone else. The proportion of the global population which actually needs an app to transition them (effortlessly!) to three different cities in the space of two weeks is vanishingly small; who’s serving the transportation needs of everyone else?

The data wizard in me is curious about how all the different bits come together to make the app go, and how they’re thinking about the complexities of plotting routes in different kinds of cities: I’d love to see what Citymapper – Cairo would look like. The challenges presented by a place where the cityscape is still being defined as it pushes further and further out into the desert would be interesting. And how about all the non-standard ‘public’ transportation routes people use in cities where public transportation is not so well defined? Ad-hoc ride-sharing in taxis? Minibuses that define routes and times based on the population that presents themselves at the time that the bus wants to go, rather than by a predetermined schedule? How do you map that?

I’ve written before about my terrible travel anxiety (well, traveling home at night in London anyway.) Having Citymapper in my pocket calms me. I know that no matter how far I roam (within the areas of CityMapper’s coverage, at least) I can always find my way back.

Caitlin’s PhD was about the anthropology of belly dance. She currently applies her anthropologist’s toolbox to finding human-focused meaning in large data sets at an edtech company. Find her on twitter @caitiewrites, or follow her blog where she covers topics ranging from dance to data science.

The proportion of the global population which actually needs an app to transition them to three different cities in the space of two weeks is vanishingly small; who's serving the transportation needs of everyone else?

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