Thursday, May 6, 2010

When pet projects grow up and become something bigger


I had a huge smile on my face this morning when I scrolled through my Twitter timeline and found @gl33p's pictures of the new display at Mother Fools Coffeehouse. Coffeehouse patrons are now enjoying real time arrival estimates for the Madison Metro buses passing by at the corner of Ingersoll and Jennifer courtesy of SMSMyBus!

It's amazing and gratifying to see this project come to life the way it has. And it reinforces the importance of doing rather than talking when a problem presents itself. You just never know where it will lead you.

A few months ago, Twilio ran a developer contest for their new SMS API. Having already built one Twilio app for blogging to Posterous, I was anxious to create another one and I immediately knew what I'd build with the SMS tools. 


I have long wanted a way to query the Madison Metro bus system to understand where my bus is when I'm standing in two feet of snow. I knew that Metro tracked their buses using GPS so I figured why not put that information in my hand using a mobile phone.


I was able to build the app in a weekend of hacking and SMSMyBus was born. I could query any bus and any bus stop in the city from my phone. My problem solved... But I quickly discovered that I wasn't alone. Several people around me were having the same problem and immediately started using the service as well. Feedback and bug reports came flying in and the number of users grew without an ounce of publicity outside of a few tweets. Today there are over thirty individuals using the service to make their bus experience better.


Since its initial release, I've added a number of other interfaces to extract scheduling data.... You can now receive real time arrival estimates via the phone, email, Twitter, and Google chat.


Through the prodding of my first user and biggest evangelist, Preston Austin, I was encouraged to build a truly platform agnostic interface and make the data available through a simple web service. Once made available, Preston championed the creation of the display at Mother Fools and implemented a terrific presentation layer that continuously refreshes throughout the day.


This has opened the doors for a number of different opportunities for partnerships throughout the city, and we're looking forward to expanding the number of displays to make the data more accessible and make riding the bus more enjoyable.


Do you have an itch? Have a problem that needs to be solved? Go solve it. You never know what it will turn into...