If a parent can track a pizza using their smartphone, why can’t they follow their kid’s school bus? Parents are repeatedly asking that question. Over the last five years, at least a dozen companies ranging from veteran routing firms to startups have provided answers, and often it’s the simplest ones that resonate the most.
“As a working parent, there’s always a struggle to know when the bus is going to get your kids. It’s that minor migraine that’s always present,” said Patrick Fogarty, parent of a high school senior and a 13-year-old who attend Red Clay Consolidated School District in Wilmington, Delaware.
The district uses WheresTheBus by Tripspark.
“The bottom line is, we all live with very tight schedules and a lot of our life revolves around knowing when the bus is going to show up and when the bus is going to pick up the kids,” Fogarty continued, adding that he gets peace of mind when sending his daughter out in the dark early mornings to catch her bus along a busy road knowing student tracking technology is available.
He noted that it was important to him that the app works equally well on different devices.
“I’m speaking to you right now on an iPhone, but because the nature of my business is technology, I also have Android devices, and I very frequently will go back and forth from Apple to Android,” Fogarty said. “I have to say the consistency is equivalent whether I’m seeing it on the iPhone or on the Android.”
Incorporating end-user feedback is a challenge for any developer of school bus products since the district buys it but parents ultimately use it—and review it online.
“The app is also a representation of our client, the school district. At a certain level, most parents don’t realize all the ins and outs of these products, they just want to make sure it just works,” commented Antonio Civitella, president and CEO of Transfinder.
Civitella said the biggest difference between designing an app for parents, such as the company’s Stopfinder, and routing software for districts is training.
“We don’t train parents,” Civitella said. “When we roll out software to our clients, we have a whole training regiment that we follow based on all the modules our clients buy, and of course, if there’s new staff members, we have refresher courses. I can’t just say open up the box and start running on your own.”
Though some apps also have options to send emails and push notifications, many parents say they are content with a map showing bus location.
“I don’t think we need to make something overly complicated when it does what it’s meant to do,” said Jackie Morris, who uses WheresTheBus to follow her 12-year-old son to his charter school in the Red Clay Consolidated School District. “With all the apps we have, I don’t need to learn 50 million features in an app, when all I want to know is where the bus is and when it’s getting here. I think it does a great job of doing that. It’s easy to follow. It’s user-friendly.”
Like opening a Facebook account or installing a Google Nest, parents should intuitively be able to plug and play— that means streamlining features and eliminating jargon.
“The biggest thing we changed after talking to the parents was some of the languages we used on the screens,” explained Susan Papali, product manager for Zonar, which launched MyView last year. “Some things like geo fence, for example, that we know inside the industry and that dispatch is probably very familiar with, but as a parent, that’s an unknown term.”
She added that Zonar focused on making MyView simple and easy to use, which paid off in September with the Most Innovative App award from attendees of the Bus Technology Summit presented by School Transportation News. “That’s especially important because we don’t have a direct line to the parents. Our customers are the schools, but the end-user is parents,” Papali said, adding that she also kept an open mind when it came to passenger feedback.
“My son thinks I’m working on this cool thing. He says, ‘My mom is trying to get me back to school safely.’ That’s super exciting to hear from your child,” she relayed.
The worst thing a tracking app can be is inaccurate. It only takes a minute to miss the bus, sending working parents on an unappreciated detour to get their kids to school on time.
Other issues parents report facing involve the limitations between split households and private schools. Parents said they also want to be able to add and remove users with the ease of asking grandma to babysit. For school districts with public, private and charter school options, parents want the app to be used consistently among schools.
“I only have one problem so far, and that is because you can only use it for Strongsville schools students,” explained Scott Clayton, whose 6-year-old son and 13-year-old daughter ride Strongsville City Schools buses southwest of Cleveland. The district provides parents with the Here Comes The Bus app from Synovia/CalAmp.
“This one would be more valuable to me, because he is only 6-years-old and we obviously worry more for him than our 13-year-old who has a cell phone,” Clayton continued.
While many parents give apps two thumbs up, the technology also cuts down work for dispatchers.
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“It’s been a game-changer. It cut down the calls to our dispatch team,” said Kelly Shahan, the transportation manager for Red Clay Consolidated School District. In a normal school year, she said the Wilmington, Delaware, district moves 13,000 students on 142 buses along 426 routes. With COVID-19 restrictions, only 23 children can ride each bus, but transportation staff have been able to use the bus tracking data to configure new routes.
“In the past, with the driver shortages, routes would change all the time, or a driver would have to come back around twice, and I felt so bad when kids were left standing in the rain,” Shahan added. “Now parents can see when the bus is coming, then send their kids out.”
When asked about areas where the technology can improve, Shahan said Tripspark continues to incorporate district feedback into the product design. “Every time I come up with something, I email TripSpark and they work on an upgrade. They say we’re going to get our team on it because chances are if you need it, others need it, too.”
Editor’s Note: As reprinted from the January 2021 issue of School Transportation News.