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Mastering the Metro
March 14, 2012
A pair of GW alumni created an iPhone app to help riders choose which car to board to make for a quick escape at their destination.
A way to make riding the Metro more efficient—maybe even bearable? There’s an app for that.
George Washington University alumni David Glidden, B.A. ’11, and Andrew Thal, B.A. ’11, have recently rolled out their $2.99 Metro Master application for the iPhone and iPod Touch. Like standard commuter apps, it includes arrival times and a map of D.C.’s Metrorail system. But theirs is anything but standard: It shaves a few minutes—and a lot of headaches—off users’ commutes by telling them where to board the train to make for the quickest getaway up the escalator and out of their destination station. The accompanying “Heat Map” even shows where the train is typically most crowded.
George Washington Today caught up with the creators to learn about how the app came to be, including the many hours of data collection possible only by visiting every one of Metro’s 86 stations.
What sparked the idea for the app? You must really like being the first person on the escalator.
Mr. Glidden: It certainly is great to get to the escalator before any other passenger. That’s actually how the idea came about. I was standing with some friends and one of them pointed out that if you really know the Metro, you know where to stand on the platform so that you get off right at the escalator when you arrive at the next station. I decided to keep track of this as I went station to station, but writing it down was cumbersome, so the idea of presenting the information as an app was born.
What was next?
Mr. Glidden: The next step was to figure out whether we could actually make this a reality and whether anyone would actually be interested in something like this. We found a success story of a similar app for the New York City subway, but no one had created one for D.C. I was actually about to give up on the project, but Andrew encouraged me to go forward with it.
Mr. Thal: David mentioned the idea to me while we were at a Nationals game. I thought it was a great idea and I was excited to do something technical and entrepreneurial. My computer science minor helped, but we were actually able to create the app with minimal coding by using a service called buzztouch.
Mr. Glidden: After we determined that this was actually doable, we went Metro riding. All in all, 30 ½ hours were spent collecting data from every station. We needed to know which train doors offered the quickest exits at each station. It was fun, but also grueling.
Mr. Thal: As David was collecting the data we started figuring out the flow and features of the app. We wanted something different than anything else out there, even from the Exit Strategy NYC app. The Heat Map ended up being one of those differentiating points.
What’s the best part about using this app—getting out of the station before all the tourists at Smithsonian?
Mr. Thal: It’s definitely useful for bypassing tourists, but we think there’s more than just that. For users we find that it can decrease their commute time and make it more comfortable by finding the optimal car to enter while waiting for their train to arrive. In addition, the app is beneficial to Metro since it encourages passengers to spread out along the platform, allowing them to board quicker and trains stay on schedule.
The app is under your newly created company “Optipotamus.” What’s the significance of the name?
Mr. Glidden: We came up with the name while at the Nationals game when Andrew agreed to work on the project. The first part of the name is derived from the word “optimize.” The company mission is to offer products and services that optimize the lives of our customers. The second half of the name pays tribute to GW’s unofficial mascot, the hippopotamus. We were both very involved in student life at GW and it made sense that our company name would reflect the time we spent at GW.
By the end, how much time and money was invested in the creation of the app?
Mr. Glidden: From idea to launch, it took about eight months, but the most time-intensive parts of the project took a good part of the fall of 2011. We spent 30 ½ hours on the Metro and $251.50, including Metro fares, developer costs and the Web site.
Any interesting stories or observations from all the hours riding?
Mr. Glidden: At Fort Totten I had to help a guy whose motorized wheelchair had broken down. There were a few minutes before the next train so I told him I’d be right back. I went to collect the data I needed and then came back to help him onto the train in the right direction.
After being underground for so long, you really appreciate the stations that are above ground out in Virginia and Maryland.
Luckily, no near-death experiences, although there were a few close calls jumping onto the platform, making a quick note of the best exits, and jumping back on so you didn’t have to wait for the next train.
What experiences did you take from GW that helped you create this app?
Mr. Thal: My computer science classes definitely helped with some of the technical aspects of the app, as well as deciding on how the product should look and work. I also found that my experience from starting a business, Furniture For Good, while at GW helped me know what we needed to do to set up the business aspects of the app.
Mr. Glidden: Being very active in student leadership roles definitely gave me the skills I needed to co-manage the Metro Master project. I think the love for D.C. that I developed while at GW also played an important role in making sure to follow through this project to completion, knowing that I was a part of something that would add to others’ experiences in D.C.
What was your favorite part of working on it?
Mr. Glidden: Seeing the development of the app through from beginning to end has been extremely rewarding, and even more so now that it has been released and we’ve received such a positive response from the press and our users. Although visiting every single Metro station was fun in a way, I think one time through the entire system is plenty!
Mr. Thal: I agree with David. I thoroughly enjoyed taking this app from a simple idea through all of the stages of development to finally something that can positively impact people’s commutes. It’s really rewarding to see the validation from our hard work.
Has the response been as expected?
Mr. Glidden: We’ve received positive responses all around. Sales have been so great that we’ve already started to receive a return on our investment, so everything is going even better than planned. What we’re focusing on now is expanding to Android devices, as well as thinking about other features that we can add into the app to continue to improve riders’ Metro experiences.
What are your personal commutes like on Metro? The system gets a fair amount of criticism these days—what’s your take, given the extensive riding it took to create the app?
Mr. Glidden: The Metro system hasn’t been rehabilitated in quite some time, so it is understandable why there currently are frequent repairs and construction. Although I take the bus to and from work [at Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP, a legal advisory firm], I still use the Metro fairly often and although it’s inconvenient, I am impressed by the amount of work that they’re doing, especially at the Foggy Bottom station.
Mr. Thal: My commute [to LivingSocial] is three stops on the Orange Line, so I haven’t seen too many issues. As with anything, people are allowed to be frustrated, but it seems that Metro is doing everything in its power to improve the train system. We hope that our app can ease some frustration by giving riders more information and more control over their Metro trip.