On 25 March 2019, a new beta version of the NUS NextBus app was launched for Android and iOS. It is jointly developed by NUS Smart Systems Institute and the Office of Campus Amenities (OCA), and underwent a 1-month beta trial involving me and the rest of NUSSU.
By now, students and staff will have received emails telling them to update their app to receive the beta version. There is also a handy user guide – please use that to find out how to use the app. It’s a lot easier than it looks!
Here are some of the features that I loved in the app:
Real-time bus location
Each of our buses has a GPS unit which is activated when the drivers register their trip on a computer kiosk. This GPS can track the live location of the bus; this gets translated into arrival timings based on certain ‘waypoints’. Once a bus passes by a certain spot, it is considered to be x minutes away from each stop.
Needless to say, this is very inaccurate: timings in real life can be affected by many different variables, such as crowds, driver speed, traffic lights or traffic jams. The new app enables users to make a more informed choice on which bus to take by directly showing users the live location from the bus GPS.
Based on this functionality, students can now make decisions on the spot: if this D2 reaching UTown is too crowded, can I comfortably skip it and wait for the next one? Can I skip it and get on a C instead? The timings within the app are no longer meaningless numbers; you can now be assured that the bus is, indeed, nearing your stop.
If you prefer the numbers, though, they are still visible! The numbers and locations update in real time, so no more spamming the refresh button.
I expect this feature to be very useful for students riding BTC1 or BTC2 – since those buses come once every half an hour, it is crucial to know whether you will make it on time. The new app eliminates that ambiguity of wondering whether your bus has come and gone!
Also, as shown by the screenshots above, the bus stop map is able to show students the entire bus route – no wondering where B1 and B2 go any more.
Bus Plate Numbers
Since the buses are tracked by GPS, we also displayed the bus plate number in tiny characters above the bus location. This was originally implemented as a visual cue so users knew the orange dots represented buses, but we soon discovered there was an unexpected benefit: we can now identify buses individually without being on them!
Imagine if you lost something on a bus, or experienced an incident (pleasant or unpleasant) that you wished to report. But you already alighted the bus, and forgot to note down the bus number. You can just launch the app, take note of which bus(es) left the area recently, and make an educated guess as to which bus was most likely involved!
Live updating of incidents
Of course, sometimes the kiosk doesn’t work, causing drivers to be unable to register their trips. In the past, when that happened, the old app would just fall back to a series of meaningless, hardcoded numbers, but students would have no way to know, and instead assumed the app was BSing us.
Now, whenever this happens, a message will pop up to let us know that timings are not available; the message will also remain on a purple ticker tape at the bottom of the screen. If it doesn’t show up, there is also a simple way to check if the timings are accurate – just look at the map; if there are no orange buses shown, then most likely the kiosk is down and the drivers are unable to activate their GPS.
This feature is also pretty useful to alert us of service disruptions caused by vehicle accidents!
Bus Stop Selection
The old app merely had a list of bus stops, which would order themselves according to your GPS location. Now, you can still find the bus stop nearest to you by GPS, or select them from a Google map of the campus!
Alternatively, there is a Favourites screen where you can bookmark your favourite bus stops to instantly view them. This feature also allows OCA to keep track of which bus stops are often Favourited by students, so they know which stops have high demand!
Notice that the data for “1 mins” and “Arriving” are shaded in two shades of green. I loved this immediate visual cue that distinguishes this from other timings.
At the top of the page, there is even a toggle to set the Favourites to be the default screen when you open the app! Sounds good, though I personally didn’t enable it. Because right now, there is still no way to sort the favourite bus stops to have your ultimate favourite be on top. I have sent that suggestion in, and hopefully it will be implemented soon!
First and Last Bus Timings
If you go to the “Bus Services” screen, not only can you immediately see a list of all routes and live locations – you can also check on the bus service details!
Simply tap on the clock/calendar icon next to the service name. It will immediately pull up the first and last bus timings, sorted by term period and day of the week!
While I enjoyed the chances I got to catch up with people who would otherwise never hit me up on Telegram, I guess it’s better now that you can directly find out when is the last bus home from the app instead of frantically messaging me! Looking at you, my USP/SoC/VJ friends…
This update brings the ability to communicate with OCA like never before. At the messages pane, the top half contains updates that can be sent centrally from OCA to broadcast information to students. These include a how-to guide on using the new app, and miscellaneous tips and tricks.
At the bottom, the Feedback button now directs instantly to an email addressed to OCA – and it comes with six fields: Incident Date, Incident Time, Bus Service, Bus Plate Number, Bus Stop and Details. This prepopulated template allows OCA and NUSSU to hopefully save on reminding users to supply this information, so we can spend less time asking you to follow up with details and jump straight in to investigating or commending!
Honestly though, who doesn’t love the user interface of the new beta app? It feels like such an improvement over the old one. Many people I spoke to previously daoed (ignored) the app entirely because a Telegram bot could do the same thing. Not to discount the effort by those developers in building the bots, but now with the features mentioned, the new app can really hold its own visually.
Are there any other features that you like about the beta app? You can share them with us in the comments, or email OCA to tell them what you think!