Is mobile app solution to Malta’s rush-hour gridlock?

University lecturers together with Vodafone Malta Foundation are developing the framework for an experimental pick-and-drop shared service

From left: Prof Adrian Muscat, Prof Maria Attard and Michael Camilleri
From left: Prof Adrian Muscat, Prof Maria Attard and Michael Camilleri

Sustainable mobility, the transport network and traffic congestion are on everybody’s lips nowadays, with plans being bandied about for greater use of water taxis, bike lanes, trains, bridges and tunnels.

Everyone acknowledges there are too many cars on the road, and that something needs to be done to ease traffic congestion, and many also seem to acknowledge that the environment – and our health – would also benefit from a reduction in the number of vehicles.

And yet, very few people actually do something about it. Very few are willing to stand up and be counted and to put their money where their mouth is.

At the University of Malta, MaltaToday met a small group of researchers who have done just that; they question whether they are mere researchers, or if they should now consider themselves as activists – because they have identified the problem, determined how to collect relevant and reliable data, created a structure to provide accurate data analysis and also come up with a possible solution that they are working very hard to bring to fruition.

Meet Prof. Maria Attard, director of the university’s Institute for Climate Change and Sustainable Development, Prof. Adrian Muscat, faculty member of the Department of Communications and Computer Engineering in the Faculty of ICT and Michael Camilleri and Nicolette Formosa.

Together, they are working on a joint project with the Vodafone Malta Foundation to develop the technology for a Shared Demand Responsive Transport (DRT) service for the University of Malta and the 15,000 students who attend.

The Vodafone Malta Foundation is part-funding the project through its Connecting for Good Programme, the aim of which is to explore innovative ways in which mobile technology can deliver social change. 

In layman’s terms, they are working to develop the framework for an experimental pick-and-drop shared service that would use minivans to collect students from around various localities and take them to university and vice versa.

Their hope is that such a service, if well-priced and comfortable, would convince students to leave their cars at home at least for their daily commute to university.

But as Muscat said, if such a system were successful, there was nothing to stop a commercial operator from taking the idea and expanding it to round-the-clock nationwide availability.

This is not Uber or its likes. This is a pre-booked service that would see clients travelling on board minivans on a prescribed route; a client would therefore know that the van, once it collects him, could make a pre-determined number of other stops.

The client would also know beforehand how long the trip was estimated to take.

“We gathered data from national surveys and statistics, but we soon realised we had a possible goldmine of information at hand with the 15,000 university students themselves,” Attard said.

“We recognised we needed a means to collect data from the students that would provide a clearer picture of their travelling habits.”

Enter the mobile app

This is when the team came up with the idea to develop an ad-hoc app to encourage students to submit data on their travel patterns.

This mobile application, called Vjagg (journey), is available for download for Android from the Google Play Store and seamlessly collects data about journeys carried out by the user throughout the day. 

“This will give us an invaluable – yet tangible – insight into the travel needs of individuals and the population, which are essential for our research in transport,” Attard said.

 The user provides only general personal information, namely gender, age group, relationship to the University, and whether they have access to a car.

This information is only collected once, when the user signs up to the app, and will only be used for statistical and demographic purposes in relation to the study. 

The user simply turns on GPS tracking at the start of a journey, and the app will record the route, time taken and the distance. The user will then have to manually select to send the information to the institute.

“What started as a side project on developing a means to collect data, has now mushroomed into this full-blown mobile application, that will be familiar to the younger generation but will also allow us to gather real-time data that is essential for our project,” Attard said.

“We are doing our best to promote the app through all our channels, including social media, because this is a very easy to use a platform that remains fully under the control of the user.”

From researchers to activists

Even if the professor will not say it, this app could very well be a game changer in the whole scheme of things.

Its ease of use should make it attractive to a whole spectrum of users, young and old alike, who do not need to be computer geniuses to set up the app.

The prototype technological development foreseen to support such services will be studied and tested around the University of Malta Msida Campus, where the scale and geographic concentration of demand for such services is high. 

It is also an aim of the study to showcase the University as both an initiator and eventually a best practice example for others to follow; work on this project will build on the existing efforts of the Green Travel Plan which the University supports.

If the can-do attitude of the team involved is anything to go by, the project will be a big success. An underlying passion for a healthier way of life and a genuine care for the environment also provide drive and a noble raison d’etre.

This team has taken the bold step from research into activism; they are now actively pursuing and testing a viable solution to one of Malta’s biggest headaches, and with the support of the public, and the university student community in particular, they might very well be on to something.