SEPTA will announce two major freebies today – its first official iPhone app and a plan to expand its free Xfinity WiFi service to transit stations on the Broad Street Line, Market Frankford lines and the Norristown High Speed Line.
Known simply as “SEPTA,” the app is available on Apple’s App Store and brings together some of SEPTA’s existing online tools, including Next to Arrive, TrainView and TransitView. The app includes current schedules for all modes of travel, as well as travel updates and alerts available through the System Status feature. It also includes a new feature that uses GPS to find a user's nearest SEPTA service location, fare information and SEPTA's customer service contact information.
“What we wanted to do was take some of the most popular areas of our website – our near real time data, as well as our schedule data and our status and alert section – and package it into a mobile app for our customers,” said William Zebrowski, SEPTA’s senior director of information technology.
The app has been two years in the making. It started out as a task for one of SEPTA’s college interns, who developed an early prototype before leaving for another job. After the intern left, SEPTA hired a developer specifically to work on the app.
Zebrowski said SEPTA saw the need for the app and received a lot of feedback on social media from customers asking when an official app would be developed.
“The fact that it’s taken a while is [because] we have one developer, and typically when mobile apps are developed you have a whole team,” he said. “We just don’t have those resources.”
While independent web developers have created apps using SEPTA schedules and data, Zebrowski and Michael Zaleski, SEPTA’s director of emerging and specialty technologies, said there are benefits to having an in-house SEPTA app.
“It gives us more control over what gets included in the app,” Zaleski said. “One of the things I notice when I look at the app ecosystem out there is the apps that exist seem to be somewhat specialized.”
Those apps might include real time regional rail data or transit schedules but not both, he explained.
“The other thing is it gives us an official presence in the [Apple app] store,” he said. “… A certain demographic, maybe it is tourists or out-of-towners, kind of like that it’s the official one, has the seal of approval, has a little more credibility.”
In the past, SEPTA’s Assistant General Manager of Customer Service Kim Scott Heinle has said that some independent developers lose interest in their SEPTA apps and stop updating them. Having an official SEPTA app, he said, ensures that the information will be up-to-date and that the app will not fall by the wayside.
Once the app is released, SEPTA plans to share the source code so that developers can fork it – developer speak for copying the code and using it to develop another product. The hope is that these developers might contribute improvements or contributions to the official app.
SEPTA will continue to modify and improve the app in-house as well. Zebrowski said SEPTA will begin working on an Android-compatible version immediately and expects to have it ready by the spring. Early updates to the iPhone app will likely include links to SEPTA’s Foursquare and iSEPTAPhilly campaigns.
At the same time that SEPTA officially unveils its iPhone app, the Authority will announce the expansion of free WiFi. At the moment, SEPTA has Xfinity WiFi at the five Center City regional rail stations. Over the next two years, SEPTA and Comcast will install Xfinity WiFi hotspots at all Broad Street Line and Market Frankford Line stations and at several Norristown High Speed Line stations.
“We thought it would be a good time,” said SEPTA spokesperson Andrew Busch. “These things were both kind of coming together at once, and it’s a good convergence to be able to tell people that they’re going to be able to use the SEPTA app and also that this WiFi is expanding.”
The 69th Street Transportation Center will be the first station to receive a new WiFi hotspot. After that, the remaining stations will receive access on a rolling basis.
SEPTA will unveil both the WiFi expansion and the new app at a celebration at 69th Street Transportation Center, Tuesday, Oct. 29 at 9:30 a.m.
Christine covers transportation and writes about everything from pedestrian concerns to bicycle infrastructure, bridges, trail networks, public transit and more. Her favorite assignments send her bushwhacking through Philadelphia’s yet-to-be-cleared bike trails, catching a glimpse of SEPTA’s inner workings or pounding the pavement to find out what pedestrians really think. Christine also covers community news for Eyes on the Street, where her coverage ranges from food sovereignty to public art and urban greening. She first joined PlanPhilly in fall 2011 as an intern through a partnership with Temple University’s Philadelphia Neighborhoods website. During the internship her reporting on the Housing Authority’s surplus property auctions earned an award from the Society of Professional Journalists.