When civil engineer Justin Coetzee took a position as a public transport planner, he decided to leave his car parked at home and started taking the train to work in the morning. His daily route opened his eyes to the inconsistency of railway transport in his hometown of Cape Town, and in South Africa as a whole.
The given timetable is unreliable. Commuters do not know when they will get to work or arrive home, nor are they privy to information about maintenance, cancellations and strikes.
Instead of organising a riot he spent some time thinking about a solution.
Trains break down, staff capacity fluctuates and the railways need maintenance. That’s just life. But, it would be great to have that information handy to help commuters plan their daily commute. The idea led to Coetzee’s Masters of Engineering thesis in which he studied mobile public transport information systems. The thesis covered topics such as the viability, execution and characteristics of a good public transport information system. That’s how Mobi.lity was born.
Launched in February of 2012, one of Mobi.lity’s first solutions was a prototype mobile website for the University of Cape Town’s Jammie Shuttle. The proof of concept led to a successful pitch to railway transport agency Metrorail for Metrorail.mobi, a system that uses data from a proprietary Siemens signaling system at every train stop to measure when a train has entered and left a stop. Over time this data helps to build up a profile of each train’s performance and schedule. Mobi.lity shares this data with Metorail’s 2.4-million commuters, through Metrorail.mobi.
Commuters can access live train times, announcements from the Metrorail’s operations centre, as well as additional news and weather services through a commuter applications and information portal. The first phase of Metrorail.mobi will provide this information to Cape Town rail users, with the other regions in the country scheduled to come online in the future.
Coetzee sees this as the first step to “producing an integrated public transport information tool that will allow for multimodal transport planning and information on par with Europe and North America.” He hopes that the system will increase brand loyalty and perceived reliability of the Metorail transport agency, thereby decreasing acts of vandalism by disillusioned commuters and inspiring confidence in the eco-conscious and cash strapped to leave their cars at home.
Mobi.lity is self-funded and privately-owned by its founders, Justin Coetzee and his father Ernst — a Big Data specialist with 30 years experience on IBM platforms.
The startup monetises its service in four ways. The agency — Metrorail in this case — pays a license fee on a sliding scale based on the number of users that access the mobile site. Commuters are required to pay a subscription fee for value added features such as personalised SMS updates and the ability to retrieve historical performance data. Advertisers pay for access to 2.4-million daily commuters who use the mobile information site and lastly, content providers pay for syndication through a content portal button placed on the mobile site.
Looking at Mobi.lity’s monetisation options, it’s clear that the startup plays in an interesting space. “Our focus is on the commuter — and the value of the market-size and number of eyeballs we have engaging with the service. Our competitors all focus on the government agency, and their revenue model is in the sale of technology to the agency — not in the end user and the depth of that interaction. We are going beyond real-time train data and information — and into a new media space.”
Mobi.lity has recently received seed funding from Gauteng’s Provincial Government to extend its services to Johannesburg, with additional agencies such as Rea Vaya, Putco, Metrobus and Gautrain to offer a single information portal for public transport for each city. Beyond that, the startup has its sights set on operating in international cities, but will face competition from the likes of Trapeze ITS, VIX Technologies and Siemens to name a few.
In South Africa, Mobi.lity will also face competition from competitors during agency tender processes. If Mobi.lity’s media model proves successful, competitors could incorporate similar models with agency incentives into their offerings.
Currently www.metrorail.mobi — redirects to its IP address and port number, something which, once addressed, will add some polish to the fledgling service.
Mobi.lity intends to actively develop its public transport services and will be looking into mobile and NFC ticketing, automated fare collection, person detectors and counters in the future. Coetzee hopes that his experience inspires other South African startups to take on societal challenges.