Time to Design, Build and Deploy: Just over a Month
Boston Public Schools (BPS) wanted to build a system for families to track their children’s school bus to know when it was coming or going. The system needed to support 30,000+ students. They had an existing student-bus-assignment system—but minimal staff, minimal resources, and a constrained budget.
We got creative with stakeholders in the district, including the mayor’s office, and designed a system that would encrypt sensitive information both at the source system (at BPS) and on the parent application. This ensures that data both in-flight and at-rest is encrypted. To “sign in”, we built a puzzle-based mechanism, asking the parent specific questions about their student. The answers to these questions are encrypted on the client side creating a key used to access bus route information.
This intentional minimalism has resulted in a very low-maintenance system that has run with barely any intervention for over three years.
The application is a staple for parents and schools across the city. Each bus in the fleet has a GPS device installed and the ability to report its location. Parents can use their mobile phones or desktop computers to view each of their children’s buses in an interactive map of the city in near real-time. Parent councils quickly became vocal advocates for the application.
“It’s expected to be a boon for time-strapped families—letting them know if they have the luxury of a few additional minutes inside on a frigid winter morning.”
Changing Our City for the Better
Beyond the utility to parents of school children, the application garnered a lot of attention from the press, including the Boston Globe, New York Times, NPR, and local news outlets. Its transparency drove the conversation and led to action that brought about positive change in the city’s bus policy.
“We’re gifting peace of mind to Boston parents. What could be better?”
Shortly after the release to Boston Public Schools, we developed two related applications—Schoolbot and Hermes. Schoolbot is an open-source, commercially-supported product with web, text, and native applications. We optimized pricing for schools with tight budgets toward integration and ongoing support. Hermes is the name of the conversational interface we built. Hermes sends phone text notifications as students tap their RFID card when entering and exiting a school bus. The text messages include the bus number, scan time, and scan location.