Bus Tracking App En Route to Improving Mankato Public Transportation
Many students who rely on public transportation find themselves stressing out about catching the bus, finding the correct route, or having to wait outside in Minnesota weather. A partnership between the City of Mankato and Minnesota State University, Mankato has the potential to eliminate those worries.
The development of a live bus tracker means students can save time and stress less when it comes to riding the bus. Users can access live bus tracking, route schedules, and a detailed trip planning function to help make transportation more convenient and efficient. The bus tracker is available to users in a variety of ways. A mobile version is currently available within the new University mobile app, Mav Life. Alternatively, a stand-alone mobile app exclusively for the bus tracker, called Bus Mankato, is available on the App Store and on Google Play. If you’d rather track buses online through your web browser, you can visit mnsu.edu/bus.
This is a huge step toward improving access to the city bus system, but it didn’t happen overnight. This big idea has been on the minds of many who have been working behind the scenes for several years—and for good reason. An increasing number of students rely on the dependability and convenience of the Mankato Transit System to get to and from work or classes, buy groceries, or meet up with friends. In fact, ridership on the city buses from the Minnesota State Mankato campus has more than doubled since the 2011–2012 academic year.
But it’s not just students who ride city buses. The Mankato Transit System provides public transportation to the city of Mankato at large. With so many people depending on the buses—rain, snow, or shine—it’s important that information about routes and schedules is easily accessible.
The development of the bus tracking app officially began in the spring of 2017, when officials from the City of Mankato turned to the University for help. Mark Anderson, then Superintendent of Transit for the City, and Kurt Klinder, the Geographic Information Systems (GIS) Coordinator for the City, prompted a partnership between the City of Mankato and the University. Having recently updated their buses with GPS trackers, the City worked with its own IT department first to create a robust framework to synthesize the GPS information.
“The City of Mankato has a remarkable information technology department, but we did not have all the resources to create the bus mapping application of the scope that we had envisioned,” says Klinder. The City had half of the puzzle, but it needed a helping hand from the IT Solutions division at Minnesota State Mankato to help bring the larger vision of the app to life.
Once the wheels were turning, the project took off—but it was a long road to get there and there was still a lot of work to be done. David Cowan, the Facilities Services Director and Parking and Transportation Administrator at Minnesota State Mankato, says the big idea behind the bus app project can be tracked all the way back to 2011. This is when conversations about a partnership in innovation between the City and the University began surfacing. At that time, City of Mankato employees Kurt Klinder, Mark Anderson, and Matt Potocnik were discussing the possibility of geo-mapping for the city buses. Additionally, the Minnesota State Mankato student body prompted the University to provide this technology when ridership skyrocketed in 2012 with the new policy to include bus fares with the student MavCARD.
In what seems to be fate, Potocnik later became the Web Applications Developer for IT Solutions at the University. These early conversations and lasting connections are what led the bus app project to hit the ground running years later, come spring of 2017. The students had been heard, the technology was there, and it was time to make it happen.
The partnership between the City of Mankato and the University had the final goal of creating a solution to ease access to public transportation, but along the way it also provided valuable learning experiences for both faculty and students at the University. This partnership became a win-win situation, fostering growth in the students who were involved with the project, building a relationship between the City of Mankato and the University, and in the end creating a huge benefit for the entire community.
The actual production of the application began in the spring of 2018. The first step for IT Solutions at the University was to build the foundation needed to collect and hold the GPS data provided by the City. Next, to build the functioning application itself, IT Solutions reached out for help from the University community in search of a developer. Dan Salmon—then a grad student in the Minnesota State Mankato information technology program—was hired onto the team as the lead app developer. Until his graduation in May 2019, Salmon worked closely with IT Solutions staff and constructed both the web version and the stand-alone mobile app.
As for his takeaways from his experience with the project, Dan got the chance to improve his technical skills in order to gain a deeper understanding of programming languages and application design. On top of that, Dan says, “. . . it was very interesting seeing how the University’s partnership with the City of Mankato worked. . . . it was a great project to work on and I’m glad I did it.”
Alongside the work of the University’s IT Solutions division, David Cowan’s team at the Department of Facilities Services simultaneously helped drive the project forward. A group of four student workers in Cowan’s department, all with close ties to the Student Government and the international student communities at the University, acted as the student voice in the development of the bus application. They played crucial roles in the organization of new bus routes and were key players in helping to promote and test the web application during its soft launch in 2018.
Mohammad Sajal, an international student currently acting on the Student Senate and working as Vice President of the International Student Association, has had an integral part in route negotiations between the University’s Department of Facilities Services and the City of Mankato. As part of Cowan’s team, he helped collect and analyze data about ridership to determine which routes would best benefit students. Sajal was in close contact with both the Department of Residential Life as well as the International Center to determine the needs of on-campus students and international students, two populations who rely heavily on the city buses.
Sajal was also involved in the initial presentation of the web application to the University’s Student Senate in the fall of 2018. This soft launch allowed a limited population to try the app before releasing it on a larger scale. Nusrat Chaity, another member of Cowan’s team at the Department of Facilities Services, acted as the Public Relations Coordinator for the web application. Chaity, also an international student and a former member of the Student Senate, relied on social media and word of mouth to promote the application to her fellow classmates. From there, use of the application took off. Chaity says the first launch was immediately a big success, and she thanks the convenience of the app in the cold months during the fall semester. The web application remained strong without crashing, passing the test with flying colors.
Behind the scenes, David Cowan says his role in all of this was to act as an “instigator” for the project, pushing it from the beginning in order to improve students’ experience using the city buses. In his eyes, the most important impact of the new bus tracker is the heightened accessibility that it will give to students, allowing everyone to save money and hassle and help ease environmental impact through the use of public transportation. As for how the University and the City of Mankato found success with this project, Cowan says, “in the long run, it took leadership.” Thankfully, there is no shortage of leadership among Mavericks!
Mark Johnson, Vice President and Chief Information Officer of IT Solutions, agrees. “This was an invaluable experience for the University that has advanced not only the success of our students and staff but also our community as a whole. This project demonstrates IT Solutions’ unwavering dedication to progress and innovation, and we look forward to continuing to serve our students and community,” says Johnson.
It took many hands to pull this project together, and in the end, lasting relationships have been built, student workers have gained real-world skills, and the community at large has already benefitted from the final product. This project is proof that big ideas lead to the best solutions.