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Working Together in Unison: School Bus and Student Tracking 2.0

School districts and different tech vendors partner to merge technologies for more seamless operations.

In a world where we can track a pizza or an Uber, many parents expect information about their child’s bus to be instantly available. Transportation directors nationwide who are trying to keep pace with constantly arriving new technologies are often hard-pressed to find cost-effective solutions that work together. For example, most fleets have buses of different ages, an issue that presents additional challenges to merge those technologies.

Terry Penn, director of transportation for Rockwall ISD that serves a county located northeast of Dallas, explained how hardware and software vendors are partnering to offer total solutions. The vendors want the technologies to integrate easily with existing platforms.

“Electronics on older buses weren’t designed with the forethought of adapting additional components,” he stressed. “An older bus might not have the electrical system set up to easily tie into and draw the current that is needed for newer components. Someday, I hope that there is a fully compatible bus that comes from the factory that will plug and play the Wi-Fi and whatever software you want.”

He admitted that such seamless integration will undoubtedly increase the base cost of purchasing a new school bus, but it is what society now demands.

“The district I work for is near Dallas, which has an affluent, growing economy. Our parents have high expectations. They want this technology,” he explained.

With school districts faced with the ever-increasing complexity of school bus technology, more and more vendors are providing agnostic solutions. For example, Transfinder and Seon work closely in Rockwall ISD to integrate routing and GPS. Likewise, Mecklenburg County Public Schools in North Carolina requires a similar relationship between Transfinder and Zonar. The partnership is in its fourth year.

The next step, said Mecklenburg County Transportation Director Bill Mayhew, is to implement Transfinder’s new parent-facing app, Stopfinder, to provide school bus arrival times and locations. “On the first day of school, two secretaries and I handled over 250 phone calls,” he noted. “If parents can get their answers with an app on their phone, it saves us a lot of work.”

“Our strategy is to become more device agnostic, making it easier for our customers to bring other partners into our ecosystem,” commented Dan Clem, Zonar’s pupil product manager. One example is Zonar’s third-party tablet, the Samsung Tab Active 2, which Clem said allows the company to bring on more partner applications and to communicate with other hardware devices in the future. This could include other video security and routing providers.

School bus vendors now also offer application programming interfaces (APIs), which make data available to other service providers, and available to customers to generate their own reports or other applications.

For example, Zonar telematics data interfaces with the existing program that is used for parts inventory or data on fault codes that are integrated into maintenance records for buses, Clem noted. Much more detailed data on vehicle usage is then available for the mechanics to make decisions, especially with older buses in the fleet.

“Having API working for you is a huge benefit,” added Zonar’s Ben Hohmann. “Your maintenance software can only do so much. With the data that Zonar provides, you can take a proactive approach. Then that extends to other solutions, like video. They all need to communicate with one another.”

Seon traditionally was known for its video camera systems, but it is now one of a growing number of technology providers that are working on turn-by-turn navigation for school bus drivers, among other advances.

“A navigation system in a car is just thinking about an efficient path to get from one place to another. When you’re doing navigation for a school bus, safety is the most important factor,” said Justin Malcolm, director of product development. “Directions should follow the rules of the district it is being used in, which isn’t what most in-cab solutions are programmed for. If there is an accident or construction and rerouting is necessary, the navigation follows district-specific rules, such as avoiding certain roads.”

Seon representatives said the company understands that its customers work with other solution providers. If a district has GPS from another provider, Seon will work with those GPS systems and even maintain data so that each vehicle has a full data history. “That way, a district could migrate to us over time or choose the best solutions from various providers and still have the benefit of an all-in-one system. This protects their existing investments,” added Malcolm.

A challenge many school districts encounter is adopting new technology in newer school buses, while continuing to run legacy vehicles that don’t have the same bells and whistles. Operating multiple generations of buses is a complex requirement, Malcolm said. “With engine computer-integration or driver performance data, older vehicles can be a challenge,” he noted. “Newer buses are definitely easier to work with, so that can be a factor in deciding whether to update older buses. There may be a problem with different generations of products.”

Malcolm added that there may be no way to avoid having two or three different data plans when older vehicles need one particular plan and newer vehicles require another. “The OEMs are working on developing a more connected vehicle,” he confirmed. “But in the meantime, you definitely want a provider who either works across all the niches in transportation software or who offers an integration strategy.”

Meanwhile, Southwest Allen County Schools in Indiana is switching to Transfinder, for one total solution for routing, said Transportation Director Steve Lake. The district is planning to implement the Stopfinder bus location as well as other solutions from Transfinder on tablets.

“The driver will have a photo of the student at each stop. On-field trips, the driver can punch in the job number and have turn-by-turn directions to get to the football game,” Lake explained. “Also, we are going to use the tablet for pre- and post-trip and payroll functions. We are switching from paying by the route to paying hourly, so the tablets will be used for the drivers to punch in and out, and then we’ll add the time for the pre- and post-trip inspections.”

Once again, integration and ease of use are key. “What makes Routefinder Plus unique is that it can run on any browser,” said Antonio Civitella, Transfinder’s president and CEO. “It doesn’t need a beefy, workhorse computer system to run, because the work happens in the Cloud. However, if the district already has a good IT department and wants to run Routefinder Plus on its infrastructure, it can. Routefinder Plus is one way to help them have the latest product without changing their existing systems.”

When it comes to making decisions on how to integrate different technology solutions, Rob Scott, president and CEO of Viafy, advised student transporters to sit down with their vendors and their district IT departments to discuss requirements.

“I’d tell them to study the inhouse capabilities and talk to vendors about what’s going to be required. Ask the district’s student database platform provider how it can work with a GPS provider to implement a parent application,” advised Scott, whose new company partners with his old, 24/7 Security.

“Also,” Scott continued, “understand your staffing capabilities to make it work in an ongoing way. The IT department needs to maintain these solutions for the transportation department. Transportation is skilled in maintaining buses, but their staff may not be as skilled on the technology side.”

Scott shared that transportation managers who are considering new technology should also consider more than the initial cost. As a former transportation director, he said he knows that running a transportation department is difficult. Employing technology to make the job easier creates value.

“Integration must take place at some point, whether it is getting student data into a planning solution, or student data to enable a parent app, for example,” he said.

Editor’s Note: Reprinted from the November 2019 Issue of School Transportation News.

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