The Smart shehar, (Hindi word for city) mobile app has been around for four years. Meet Chetan Temkar, its creator, who envisaged smart mobility long before ´smart´ became a buzzword.
After two decades spent in the US, Chetan Temkar is bringing his experience to bear to create Smartshehar is a one-of-a-kind mobile application for smart commuting and mobility in large cities. Still adding new functionalities and features, Temkar is now focussed on getting more downloads. However, in the fiercely competitive mobile apps market, he is keeping his cards close to his chest.
First, tell us a little about how Smartshehar came about.
We started in 2006 when we created a car pooling mobile app which was short message service (SMS) based. I got into mobile apps in 2011 and thought about what could be done in Mumbai that could be immediately useful for people. In a city where 30 lakh people use the public transport systems daily, I realised that as far as trains were concerned, it didn´t pose much of a challenge. However, with regard to buses, there was no information. Even today, if you ask anybody about buses, no one knows too much about them, or you get wrong information. Hence, we decided to create a location-based application for buses.
What does the application do?
Since we didn´t want people to go through the painful process of enquiring and looking up all the time-tables and buses, we decided the app itself would figure it all out. That´s exactly what it does. It finds out, in connection with your location in real-time, which buses are available and the nearest stops. If you then click on a bus, it shows all its stops on a map. If you then get into the bus, it shows you the next stop so you don´t have to keep asking the conductor. We have also done interesting things like showing the landmarks around every bus stop as people are mostly not aware of the colloquial names for these stops. It´s a very intelligent application. Moreover, based on the back-end intelligence we have about traffic, we try to figure out how long a bus will take to reach a particular point. This does not mean it is foolproof because BEST does not have a tracking mechanism but we´ve suggested to them we´ll give this functionality free of charge. All they need to do is buy a phone and put it in the bus. The bus driver enters the bus number and then he automatically picks out the start and end stops and starts his journey. After that, the app does everything else.
The other important point I want to add is this is a good example of taking a global solution and localising it in the Indian context. Abroad, all this information is relayed on display panels in the bus shelter itself.
The problem with that in India, as BEST pointed out to us, is that people will either break them or take them away. Therefore, it is better to have it on your smart-phone, and maybe this is even better as you don´t have to be at the bus shelter. You could be at a pub nearby with a friend but you are informed always about the bus through your phone!
How many downloads do you have so far?
We have more than 250,000 downloads.
Have they plateaued out at that level?
We generally get about 400-500 downloads daily if you count the other app as well. We have an app called Jumpin Jumpout which is a very ambitious project. We have parts of it ready. It allows you to share a care with your friends, or a group of people, friends of friends, or with strangers. The operation is very optimised. It is also being used in the US.
First, as soon as you create a trip, it sends a notification to all the people on the route or to selected people. These people get notifications that you have created a trip. Now, when you leave, actually start moving, people again get a notification about that.
The app is intelligent enough to figure out the speed you are moving so it knows that you are now in the car since you must be moving at a pace faster than if you were walking. It has a lot of logic built in.
What are the challenges you are facing here?
It´s very difficult to get public data. We have been talking to the government to make this data available to website owners and app makers. We´ve also offered to put all the data in a certain format. If the government does this, then it´ll open up these kinds of services. I´m hoping that now with the focus on start-ups by the current government, they´ll push these kinds of things. Once they make data open, then us app-makers can get to work. When we had gone to Western Railways, we faced a very high-handed and arrogant attitude from the official in charge there. In the US where I worked for about two decades, it is exactly the opposite. They welcome you with open arms.
However, the attitude of BEST has been great.
Of course, we still have to ask many times, etc., but generally, they have been much better compared to the Railways.
What is your vision? What do you want to finally do with this app?
We envision a transparent, cashless, and effortless system to use. For instance, if I am at Andheri and want to go to Churchgate, the app should show me different options. I should be able to see trains, buses as well as people offering rides in their own cars. The app should not only show me all these options but also list the quickest way for me to reach my destination along with other details such as who has air-conditioning, for instance. We already have about 70 per cent of these functionalities in our apps. We´ll also have a seamless and transparent system which will enable one to pay through the mobile, whatever form of transport he or she decides to use.
We also have governance apps and are creating what is needed for a smart city. We envision large-scale public involvement in their locality. What we allow them to do is take pictures and leave it to the app to do a follow-up with the local government. We are getting NGOs involved who are willing to take citizens´ grievances forward with the concerned authorities. For instance, you can even have people registering complaints in case someone is even parked wrongly. The app figures out how this message goes, where it is directed, etc., because this is the most difficult part for a common man to figure out. If I click a picture, what do I do with it? Where can I show it so that immediate action is taken? What is the next step? The app covers all these important steps. However, we realised that this becomes effective if we have an NGO willing to take up the grievances. We are doing a lot of things based on what functionalities you would expect a smart city to have.
I believe the unique thing about us is we are taking an integrated approach. The big data analytics platform we are building in the back-end will allow the government to make intelligent public policies.
It will allow them to prioritise issues and also allow them to predict problems. This is a very ambitious goal but we feel such platforms are critical for smart cities of the future.
How are you funded and are you making money yet through the app?
We are not yet making money. We are hoping for enough users. For Smartshehar, we have 2.5 lakh downloads already and we can leverage that. We are currently funded through friends and family. I have a partner and we have an office in Mumbai. There are about 10 of us, seven of whom are core staff and three or four associates work freelance. At this stage, we can´t reveal much as this relates to our competitive edge. However, once we have a fixed set of users over a longer period who have an engagement with the app, we can look at ways to monetise what we are doing. We are not worried about that right now. Our goal is just to get as many downloads as possible at this point.
- Rouhan Sharma