Rocket Man is a transit app that hundreds of thousands of Torontonians rely on to help plan their travels across the city.
Using open data to provide up-to-the-second information about when the next bus or streetcar is arriving, Rocket Man creator Hussain Saleem is one of Toronto's most widely appreciated product innovators.
What inspired you to create Rocket Man, and how did you promote it initially?
I recognized a need for people to be able to find out when the next streetcar or bus would be arriving. It was extremely frustrating waiting at a stop not knowing if you'd be there for 2 or 20 minutes. I really love Google Maps, so I started thinking about the idea of adding geocoordinates for TTC stops, and what that could mean for the city. I first launched the app for iOS around Christmas of 2010. I decided to make it available in the App Store for free, because transit in Toronto is already hectic & expensive enough as it is. I thought it should be a tool people can benefit from without having to pay for it. At the time, open data was only available for 8 streetcar routes. Traction was really disappointing at first. It wasn’t being downloaded much & I couldn’t get any media coverage for it. But then, in the summer of 2011, the TTC turned on the switch that allowed us to access the GPS data for all of their routes. All of a sudden downloads were skyrocketing, because none of the other transit apps were working properly.
How does the app actually work? How does it aggregate that TTC data?
When you download the app, it's kind of any empty skeleton. But the first time you launch the app, it downloads the GPS data on the fly from a service that runs on the cloud, so you'll have info for all 200 or so TTC stops. Then as you continue to use it, it pulls the data in real time & informs of you of any changes up to the second. It’s really about providing accurate data. People appreciate it because they can rely on it.
What are some of the general usage stats for Rocket Man?
We've had about 300,000 downloads to date, and it's currently number 5 in the App Store's Navigation category. There are approximately 4.7 million usage sessions per month- people are using it typically between 5-7 times a week. What’s really interesting about the app is that every time there’s a problem like inclement weather, a traffic accident or construction downtown, I notice the number of downloads of the app increases massively, which is an interesting phenomenon. People are eager to plan alternative routes when there's congestion in the city.
How is your team structured?
There is no team- it's just me at Rocket Man. I do consulting for RIM & I'm working currently on 2 other projects. I co-founded rentcompass, Canada's first mobile multi listing and search service for rental apartment. Rocket Man is just something I started in my spare time. I had no idea how many people would be so dependent upon it, it's pretty amazing.
Are you currently earning any money from Rocket Man? What's the existing ad model?
I'm not earning any money from it. The ads that appear on the app are a feed from iAd, and only 1 in 1000 people will consider purchasing the "remove ads" option, which is extremely low. Down the road I could look to partner with some businesses that rely on commuters, but for now, I'm just doing it all for free.
How has the UI changed since you first launched the app?
Initially it was just red pins indicating locations of stops, but we didn’t include direction. That required extra work and calculation. Now at any given stop you can get the arrival time of the vehicle traveling in your desired direction. We also added a very simple search functionality. Much like Google Maps, you don’t need a specific address to find somewhere you’re looking for. Things like landmarks and restaurants can be searched from directly within the app. And we’ve recently added a favourites screen so you can easily, access the 2 or 3 stops. A lot of work went into it under the hub. Making the service more reliable, making the application very robust, having accurate data delivered as soon as possible to the user without blocking their interactions with the device.
What's in store for the future of Rocket Man? Any plans to launch a similar app for other cities?
I recently launched Rocket Man for Blackberry 10. I'd been getting lots of requests to extend it beyond iOS. If enough people were to request that I build it for Android, I might try & make time for that too. I thought about launching it in other cities, but I don’t think that it can turn into business. It’s more of a service that people should have access to. I might open source it when I can no longer maintain it, and let other manage the source control. Then other developers could repurpose it in their own cities. I think one of the most interesting takeaways from the app is in the in the usage data. If the TTC was willing to take that data back & analyze it, they could perhaps find ways to improve their service.
From the people of Toronto, Hussain, we thank you :)