Many newcomers to Joburg, and those who’ve lived overseas, are struck by one thing about the city: it’d be a much better place to live if public transport worked. In most European cities now, buses and trains talk directly to your smartphone so you know exactly when the next one will come along and where it will take you. In London, a single app will give you walking directions between underground rail stations and tell you exactly where to switch trains and buses. Even the uninitiated can pick it up in minutes.

Navigating Joburg’s messy mix of sporadic bus services, suicidal minibuses and disfunctional trains, on the other hand, takes years of practice and nerves of steel.

Things are improving. The Bus Rapid Transit system buses, aka Rea Vaya, were introduced during the build up to the 2010 Soccer World Cup as a solution for international and local commuters to get around the streets and roads of Johannesburg better. Four years later and we’re finally getting the routes around town and unified fare systems, but information on Rea Vaya routes and timetables are still tricky to come by. And that’s where Griffiths Sibeko, a 22-year-old programmer who hails from Duduza in the East Rand, saw the gap for an app that could solve this dilemma.

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Sibeko got his first taste of the programming world at the hackathon organised by Nokia at an aeroplane hangar. “I didn’t know anything about programming and that’s where I met a friend of mine who was a developer at Microsoft. He encouraged me to learn to programme apps with C-shop and I took the challenge and taught myself to program and from there on I learnt to programme apps for Windows Phones.”

His interest in programming was sparked back when he was a student at the University of Johannesburg studying Information management. Before that he was studying education but yearned for something more that would complement his passion for helping people.

“My passion lies in getting information through to people” Sibeko tells us, “I want to people to know more about things around them.”

The idea for the Rea Vaya app came when he entered a hackathon-from-home competition over the past December holidays.

“I was at home and the challenge was to come up with a solution to anything,” says Sibeko, “I thought about the Rea Vaya bus station that’s close to my campus and the first time I used it.  Exploring a new transport system can be daunting for most people, it was daunting for me as well as I thought I would get lost or get on the wrong bus. I also thought about how people use apps on their phones a lot more than they go to websites, and that’s how I got the idea for the Rea Vaya app.”

Sibeko spends most of his time at the App Factory in Braamfontein, as an intern working on Windows Phone apps. This is where he worked on the Rea Vaya app with guidance from the mentors at the program.

The Rea Vaya app has a sleek yet simple design and one look at it shows that Sibeko put in quite a bit of creativity into it.

“I used Microsoft Visual Studio to create the Rea Vaya app,” he explains, ” First, I started by doing research on the Rea Vaya website and looked at what information they have there and then I remodelled and simplified the information for the app, along with the colour codes that Rea Vaya uses for its buses and routes. While doing this, I had to think of the user interaction and what I wanted people to get from using the app. I got inspiration for the design of the app from how people read newspapers from the top left, so I put all the important information is at the top left corner of the app.”

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The app itself is pretty simple to use and has a tiles interface similar to those on Windows Phones. Information such as bus routes, times, distance, fares, stops, stations and where tickets can be bought, are all on the app. There’s also a map that shows you where your current location is, the route to your destination and where your destination is.

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For now, the Rea Vaya app is only available for Windows Phone, but taking into consideration that some bus commuters may not own smartphones, the thought of bringing the app to feature phones has crossed Sibeko’s mind but for now he is concentrating on the Windows platform.

And what about other operating systems such as iOS and Android? “If someone were to approach me and bring the Rea Vaya app, I wouldn’t have a problem working with them to bring it to other operating systems.”

The Rea Vaya app is now available for download on the Windows Store.

(Images – Griffiths Sibeko, Rea Vaya)