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If You Are In Digital, You Have A Responsibility: Co-Founder Of GoMetro Explains Posted in Heavy Chef News, Concocted by Wendy Tayler, 1 comment
Published on 12 April 2013

We wanted to find out more about the engineer-turned-programmer who decided to create an app that gave commuters relevant information about travelling by train. Justin Coetzee is the co-founder of GoMetro – an app that has changed the way South Africans use MetroRail, and the way we see digital merging with public services.

GoMetroYou refer to yourself as an accidental entrepreneur. So how was the idea for Go Metro born?

I am actually a civil engineer by training and education, so I am maybe the most unlikely mobile app entrepreneur in South Africa. GoMetro started out through my experiences as a Capetonian commuter using Metrorail to get to work. I found the experience was enjoyable, but the service unreliable. The more I spoke to other commuters about this, the more I realized that this is a serious problem. I heard really sad stories of people who had lost their jobs because their Train Service was always delayed, and they had received many written warnings for late-coming. I had studied engineering to make a positive impact on people’s lives, and here was a situation that I felt I had to rectify.

So I lobbied Metrorail for access to their data, designed the first versions while my request worked through their bureaucracy, and then finally built and launched the mobile service. And the response has been phenomenal – from the public who are showing their bosses on their phones why they are late, to mothers who are getting home sooner to spend time with their children. It’s inspiring to think that this mobile service is having even a small positive impact on so many people.

Does Go Metro update in real time if trains are running late?

Yeah – the most direct metric for the success of our solution is the relevance of the information it delivers. So we have invested heavily into tapping into the Control Centres of each region. In the Western Cape, we tap into a real-time measurement system which provides real-time times and announcements. However, in Gauteng, we have had to intervene with Metrorail Control Centre staff updating train times and line announcements directly into the backend, as large parts of the Gauteng network is not adequately signalized for real-time measurements. The line announcements serve to give a user an indication of average delays or key issues that a commuter has to be aware of.

As all the founders had no coding background, you all taught yourselves HTML and CSS in 18 months. If you had to summarize, what would you say are the top points that you learned about HTML and CSS?

That there is nothing to be scared of – if you are a non-techie, just get stuck in and it will come. Interestingly enough, the real lessons have come after launching and being in the hands of users. For instance, we have learnt in South Africa’s mobile landscape, you need to ignore JavaScript and any fancy plans for your UI – as there are still so many feature phones out there that you need to cater for. So we are building a website for feature phones, then for JavaScript smartphones, and then native apps. From Nokia, to Blackberry, then Android, and then iPhone.

How have you managed and monitored user behaviour for the Go Metro App?

We use Google Analytics, but not the traditional JavaScript tags, because then you disregard all non-Javascript devices. We have found that the Google Analytics PHP tags actually measure our traffic much more accurately and efficiently. We also have a consistent feedback button on every page, so users can always leave a comment for us on the service. We have collected more than 10,000 responses in this fashion. The development team all uses public transport, so we also have a chance to chat to users on the platform-side to understand all the potential use-cases for our solution. And finally, we monitor and keep an active social media presence through @Go_Metro and @GoMetro_Girl to pick up on any unreported issues with the service.

Which devices can use the go Metro App?

As this application has a direct positive social impact on commuters from all backgrounds, we needed to build a solution that everyone could access. Therefore GoMetro runs a robust mobile web-app that runs on all WAP-enabled mobile phones – from the lowly Samsung E250 to the mighty Nokia Lumia 920. And everything in between. We fulfill our social mandate through the mobile web app, but we are building feature-rich versions on native platforms. We have just launched a native Nokia S40 app and are releasing a native Blackberry 7 app this month. We will follow it up with a pretty cool ’self-aware’ Android app in May.

How do you see South African transport and digital working together more efficiently in 2013?

Jack van der Merwe, CEO of the Gautrain, summed it up well when he said that when they designed the Gauteng Transport Masterplan in the 1970s, they never realized that every citizen would be carrying a processing platform with them wherever they moved. I think transport and mobile/digital are going to merge into ‘Mobi-lity’. We are going to be able to extract efficiencies and flexibility from our urban transport systems based on the data from our mobile phones. This is going to aid planners, operators, control centres, drivers, commuters, and pedestrians in a myriad of ways. We are only scratching the surface of possibilities for smarter cities.

What can the public health and educations systems learn from Go Metro?

The public health and education systems will never transform from the inside. That is just not the nature of any large institution. But I like to think that GoMetro has blazed a trail for startups to engage with Government entities and improve our communities in scalable ways. We have more cellphones than flush toilets in South Africa, and so the potential to positively impact other people’s lives through mobile development is simply enormous. There is some great work happening in South Africa in the field of Information and Communication Technologies for Development, such as the work of Marlon Parker and RLabs.

But the digital community as a whole should be doing so much more for education, health and basic services enablement in South Africa. We have the skills and tools to educate and empower communities through disruptive means, and I believe anyone with technical skills and talents has the responsibility to use them for public good, and not just profit. Looking at the startup scene in Cape Town and Johannesburg, I see too many first world problems being solved through first world technologies, and not enough third world problems being solved using third world technology.

What was the most surprising lesson you have learned since launching the Go Metro App?

This comes from my experience with first world technology and our launch of GoMetro. We launched last year, bearing in mind that we had to teach ourselves HTML and CSS in the process, with a very basic mobile service – to ‘industry’ standards. Because of that, we took a lot of very harsh and quite sanctimonious comments on social networks from the digital community for the shortcomings of our design and service. It was difficult to not get despondent from the harsh ‘first world problem’ reactions that came our way from the Digerati.

What kept us going and encouraged us was what our users were saying. The comments we were collecting from the feedback button from actual users on the ground were overwhelmingly positive and appreciative for the solution. There is a major difference between critics and users. If your users are critical of your service, obsess over your product until they are fans. But if your critics are not users of your service, don’t obsess at all. The users have stuck by us, and as we have improved our product – I feel that we have rewarded their trust in us. But identifying your users versus your critics is a key skill for any entrepreneur.

Thank you so much for sharing that with us, Justin. We look forward to your story inspiring others to use their skills to improve public services. Find out more about GoMetro here. Follow them on Twitter.

Read more posts by Wendy Tayler

Wendy Tayler

Wendy is the Editor in Chief at Heavy Chef. After 3 years cooking up a storm at UNISA studying English and Communications, Wendy decided to mesh her passion for writing with her love of digital. She firmly believes the world is moving into the online sphere and can be found writing, tracking down great names for interviews, or singing her heart out at the World Wide Creative studio.

Follow Wendy on Twitter

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