Trying to work out where a Joburg taxi is going to go next is an artform which those who regularly use them must master quickly, and those who merely try to dodge them on the highway may never be able to pick up. But what if you’re trying to put together the definitive guide to public transport in South Africa, helping people to get from one point to another using taxis, buses and trains as appropriate? The actual business of working out where minibuses – and big buses, for that matter – are supposed to be is a lot tougher than it should be.
“I can say to you now, there’s no way to get from here to Greenside by public transport,” says Lebogang Nkoane, “You have to go to somewhere else first, to Bree and then Barry Hertzog. For a friend of mine who lives in Centurion to get to Centurion Mall, he’d have to go to Pretoria town centre first and come first. Once you have this sort of data and you start applying it, you start seeing patterns and where the gaps are.”
“Here” is a boutique coffee shop in the recently renovated and well-to-do Mall of Rosebank, just south of Sandton. As far as public transport goes, it’s better known for its Gautrain station than its taxi rank, which as Nkoane points out is baffling and unusable for any visitor to the country who’s just trained in from the airport.
“Sandton taxi rank is the most hidden in the country,” he says, “Despite being one of the busiest. But there’s no information at all for anyone who’s just stepped off of a bus or train.”
Nkoane is the brains behind the comprehensive and beautifully designed awayto.be, a transport app which attempts to emulate the simplicity of – for example – the orderly Transport for London website and specifically it’s journey planner. Enter any two points in the capital into the TfL search engine, and it will give you explicit and accurate directions for moving around the UK capital using trains, buses and your feet.
Not only is awayto.be better looking than TfL’s site, it’s also trying to untangle a far more chaotic and haphazard network.
Despite the fact that it was originally launched in 2011, awayto.be is still a work in progress for Nkoane. He says that he’s constantly refining his route finding algorithm and he’s still trying to get comprehensive data about taxi movements from the various associations.
“I’m a perfectionist about programming,” he explains, when asked about the time it’s taken him to get awayto.be up and running. Many route finding programs – including some of the best known ones – used hard-coded routes to come up with practical answers quickly, but he’s determined to get awayto.be to the point where it’s “database independent”, and can be deployed in cities with similar transport networks – like Nairobi, for example – simply by adding the right information about basic routes.
The inspiration behind awayto.be, however, was twofold. On the one hand, it was born of a pressing need.
“awayto.be was written because my uncle had a car accident, and I lent him my car,” explains Nkoane, “And then it hit me that I had no idea how to find out which bus goes where.”
The fact that Nkoane has found himself trying to figure out one of the fundamental problems of South Africa’s major cities, though, is no accident. At the bottom of the site you’ll notice a small tag that says “Handmade in Alex” – despite his success as a programmer, Nkoane still lives in the relatively poor Alexandra township in Johannesburg where his mother was a councillor in the 1990s.
“The reason I love Alex now is that I live among the problems,” Nkoane says, explaining that too many developers become fixated on creating products of no relevance to the majority of people in South Africa. “Our problems are not that I need more friends on Facebook, our problems are social probelms – no insurance, no affordable internet access – let’s solve real problems, not just chat.”
He describes walking past the spaza shops every morning and the opportunities he’d miss if he were to move to a more luxurious, middle class suburb in the city.
“I live in Alex and I have the relative luxury of an education,” Nkoane says, “And living among people who don’t – every week I meet someone who I could help.”
Right now, though, awayto.be takes up the majority of his spare time, and Nkoane works on it between paying contracts through his company, 2LMN. As well as refining his route finding algorithm, he’s also been lobbying for more data from local government and the taxi companies themselves.
“I’ve been hoping to use the taxi owners,” he explains, “But they don’t want to give me data, they think I’ll make money from their routes.” His current tactic is to try to explain that by mapping transport data, he can help to make their businesses even more profitable.
“Once you have that data you can start applying it and find out where the gaps are,” he says. Like the one between Greenside and Rosebank, for example.
There are other uses for the data too. Nkoane explains that businesses looking to set up large call centres, for example, would be very interested to know whether or not their staff can actually get to work. Or where the best place to set up a factory would be according to real world transport maps, rather than simply looking for the biggest highway. There are other opportunities which he admits he can’t predict: which is why once awayto.be is finished, Nkoane says he’ll work on opening up the data he’s gathered so that others can use it too.
“You build something in, you expect specific outcomes,” he explains, “I want to open up my APIs is because I can’t predict what people are going to use it for.”
Nkoane knows he’s not the only person wrestling with the problem of mapping public transport in South Africa too. GoMetro is the biggest and best known, although it doesn’t include taxi data, but a newcomer to the field is also launching this month – Moving Joburg.
Ultimately, though, Nkoane says that as he approaches his 40th birthday in a couple of years time he’s looking at “retiring” from day-to-day programming in order to return to teaching – where he began his career – and he’s keen to look at mentoring and possibly even investing in other young entrepreneurs like himself.
“Most developers know how to design software,” he explains, “But not how design interfaces and the support structures should facilitate this. I hate the phrase ‘bridging the digital divide’. I prefer to talk about bridging the divide digitally. Don’t try and teach the spaza lady how to use a big accounting package or Microsoft Word for a ‘driving licence’: work out how to create an accounting package she can use without extra training.”
He also has words to share with other South African entrepreneurs.
“South Africa punishes failure,” he says, “We should celebrate failure, because through failure we learn more. When I’m done, I am going to document all the ways awayto.be has failed.”