TfL minds the gap in its website offerings

Peter Gothard
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Transport for London is ditching Microsoft's Bing and going with HTML5 and Google APIs in its first online overhaul for six years. Peter Gothard finds out more

You’ve downed a bottle or two of red wine at a company jolly, you’re somewhere in the vicinity of Holborn, and you want to get home ASAP. Should you try to stagger to the station for the last train, wait for a bus to take you there, or would the Tube be the best option? And can you be bothered, in your befuddled state, to navigate a plethora of websites and apps to try to find the answer?

“Taxi!”

In what will be a very welcome development for the capital’s commuters, Transport for London (TfL) wants to make this kind of on-the-fly journey planning much easier.

“We want people to say nice things about us, because that means they’re having a nice experience, and we’re helping them live their lives,” says Phil Young, head of online at TfL.

“Success is ‘invisible’ – it’s helping people get to meetings or interviews.”

To this end, TfL is planning some major changes, which are due to go into beta in just a few weeks’ time.

“The last refresh of the website was 2007, and in the internet world that’s almost the dawn of the industrial revolution,” says Young.

“If you look at our internet properties today, the mobile experience is different to the desktop experience. The tools themselves [that we use] are good, but not integrated with each other over the 70 TfL sites. That means if you’re planning a journey and you want to get a fare and a ticket, that’s three different websites with multiple logins. So we don’t make it as easy for customers as we’d like.”

Ten months ago Young and his team started planning some radical changes. For example, 30 legacy APIs from companies such as military-focused mapping specialist Maptech and Microsoft’s Bing operation are to be ditched in favour of a single API – Google Maps.

“We have a new feature called ‘Nearby’ that lets you view on Google Maps all the transport assets around you, how many bikes are in the docking station, the departure time of the next bus from the bus stop just over the way, and where it’s going, and how many minutes until the next one will be there, as well as the next departure from the Tube station,” explains Young.

Young expects to be able to ditch 10 of TfL’s 70 websites in the first iteration of the new build, as it pulls everything together into a single, “canonical data model” with a consistent architecture across projects.

“We built that ourselves,” says Young. “That means we can develop rapidly on top of that as a solid base.”

Hosted on Amazon Web Services, HTML5 will be the coding environment of choice across the board, making the project “mobile first”, says Young. Cookies will be used to personalise the Google Maps service, he adds.

Meanwhile, the 5,000-strong community of independent app developers to whom TfL already feeds data will be able to use the Google Maps API to begin developing far more powerful offerings.

“We’re hoping to see multiple modal apps developed in that way – rather than just a bus app or a Tube app,” says Young.

Development costs have been kept down, explains Young, by placing customer needs and feedback at the centre of the project. An agile development process was used, with multi-disciplined design teams taking what Young calls “short sprints” of two-week periods to complete focused tasks. Users – who took part in 50 focus groups – were consulted on all major forms of interactivity before money was spent on design.

Young adds that the £1m project should, according to Deloitte, lead to a £58m saving “in terms of customer time”.

While he would not be drawn on when the revamp will go live, Young did reveal that the open beta, which any member of the public can take part in, is “nearly ready for market”.

So don’t delete the taxi firm’s number just yet.

@PeterGothard

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