SciTech

Tracking through talking:

Students can now plan trips around the area more easily, thanks to the development of a new interactive voice-response phone system by three Carnegie Mellon alumni.

Lawrence Lee and Amit Agarwal, who both received bachelor’s degrees in computer science, and Vishal Chordia, who received a master’s degree in electrical and computer engineering, recently developed a phone system that provides updated schedules for buses destined for Squirrel Hill, Oakland, and Carnegie Mellon’s campus.

By calling 1-866-MyCMUBus, a person can speak with an automated operator. The operator first asks about the person’s current location and gives the option of saying “Carnegie Mellon,” “Oakland,” or “Squirrel Hill.” The operator then asks for the caller’s destination.

The system then provides bus arrival times for buses headed in that direction within the next 30 minutes.

If you tell the operator that you are in Oakland or Squirrel Hill, you will automatically be given arrival times for buses heading to campus. If you tell the operator that you are on campus, you can receive arrival times for buses headed to Oakland or Squirrel Hill.

But with the Port Authority posting schedules online already, why choose to provide such a service?

“I’m giving back something to my school, which gave me so much,” Chordia said.

Chordia said that he could remember coming from India and feeling very confused in the big city. Now, he said, he is trying to solve a problem that he does not want others to face.

“I wish someone had done that for me,” he said.

Lee said that the bus phone system is designed to both help students and support the business for which all three Carnegie Mellon graduates work, Angel.com.

Lee said, “We thought that it would be a great way to bring Angel to campus as well as give back to the campus at the same time.”

Angel.com is a company that develops interactive voice response (IVR) technology. IVR allows customers to interact with an information database via a touchtone phone.

MyCMUBus is managed over the angel.com website. Lee said that more and more businesses are taking advantage of this website because of its cheap and easy use.

Currently, KB Toys offers callers the ability to find store locations and check the stock of popular items. Other current companies include Reebok, Jiffy Lube, and Buca di Beppo.

Over 1600 other businesses have joined, too. “What Angel really gives you is the ability to create these things within minutes to a day or two,” Lee said.

He said that without any additional purchase of software or hardware, many businesses that were previously unable to use these services due to maintenance costs are now able to do so.
Lee also said that Angel provides lots of control over the phone system. Lee chose Angel to host their bus information phone service.

The system also features bus data for a bus lookup, which is a customized application that Lee designed to pull updated bus schedules from an information database.

“It really provides a lot of functionality,” Lee said. “It’s very exciting because the needs for these applications are growing.”

Chordia, who was responsible for the project’s business development, said that his goal was to make MyCMUBus as user-friendly as possible, which meant making it as simple as possible. For instance, the service does not provide individual bus numbers to callers, he said, because this information is not important.

“Anything that is simple and straightforward is much more valuable than having a number of things confusing students, making them wait for a long time,” said Chordia.

Although individuals can view complete bus schedules online, Lee said that it is inconvenient to check these times over the Internet.

He said that students who need updated information on the spot are probably headed into Squirrel Hill or Oakland in the first place.

“Something like this just makes logical sense to us,” said Lee.

At the same time, Lee said that the system can be improved in a couple of ways.

Firstly, the service could provide schedules for others areas besides Squirrel Hill and Oakland. It can also be improved by becoming officially affiliated with the public transit system.

“We could really bring the project out ... and provide much better service,” said Lee.

Chordia agrees that the project’s next step is to provide bus times to other destinations, including the Waterfront, Shadyside, Century III Mall, and the Strip District. “These are the places most students go,” Chordia said.

In order to expand the platform, however, people must use the service. With the help of professors, the team of graduate students has sent out e-mails to students and received a response of at least 1000 callers so far.

Chordia said that it is up to the students to use the service.

As for students waiting a long time for a bus, “If it’s a problem, people will use it,” he said.