Why buses vanish from your screen: NTU bus app mysteries explained by CITS

(PHOTO: Song Ai Vee)
  • The system that collects GPS data for NTU bus apps uses outdated routes, said CITS manager Mr Alvyn Lim 
  • If a route has been changed, Campus Loop buses that drive through the altered section will disappear from bus apps 
  • Bus contractor Tong Tar Transport sometimes temporarily replaces its usual Campus Loop buses with ones that do not have tracking sensors 
  • CITS may soon install sensors that monitor seat availability on buses 

By Matthew Loh and Yong Jun Yuan 

Why do campus buses disappear from mobile apps?  

The answer may not lie within the apps themselves. 

Instead, this issue likely occurs because the one system that provides bus GPS data to these apps runs on outdated bus routes, said Mr Alvyn Lim, manager of NTU’s Centre for IT Services (CITS), which oversees the school’s digital platforms. 

This system is maintained by Overdrive IOT, a tech firm hired by CITS to build the university’s official bus app, NTU Campus Bus. It also supplies other bus apps such as NTU GO! and the recently launched U-Wave with GPS data.  

Why outdated routes make buses disappear 
If a campus bus drives through an area that is not recorded by Overdrive’s system, the program detects that the bus has left the campus loop and stops tracking the vehicle, said Mr Lim. 

Yet, this system has not updated its bus routes for years, so any changes that NTU has made to these routes have become zones where buses slip out of sight from apps, he said.  

This will be amended in November, he added.  

One major affected area is near Yunnan Gardens. While bus routes used to curve towards the Hive and around the park area, buses now run straight past Yunnan Gardens, which is undergoing construction. 

That means any Campus Red and Blue bus driving through this 350m stretch is invisible to apps until it rejoins Overdrive’s original outdated route. 

“Unfortunately, it’s rubbish in, rubbish out, because sometimes the buses don’t provide accurate data, which means that they will not show up accurately,” said Mr Lim.  

The bus routes recorded by Overdrive still curve inward at the Yunnan Gardens area as shown here. In reality, they now run on the straight road next to it. (PHOTO: Matthew Loh) 

Buses out of the blue 
Conversely, sometimes campus buses arrive unannounced at a bus stop because they are completely untracked on the app. This issue is caused by a different phenomenon altogether.  

Campus Loop buses are monitored via sensors installed by bus contractor Tong Tar Transport, said Mr Lim. 

When a shuttle bus makes its rounds, its sensors constantly transmit data to Overdrive, which in turn tells mobile apps where the vehicle is on the campus map. 

However, in certain cases, such as when Campus Loop buses break down, Tong Tar Transport brings in replacement buses that are not equipped with sensors, said Mr Lim. 

“We are working closely with [the Office of Housing and Auxiliary Services] to make sure that Tong Tar’s buses coming into NTU must have sensors, in order to make the apps work better,” he added. 

A diagram to show the relationship between each organisation involved in Campus transportation. (ILLUSTRATION: Darryl Cheong)  

Seat availability estimates in the works 
Another concern surrounding bus apps is that they do not show whether incoming Campus Loop buses are full or not. Students could rush for a bus only to be denied entry because it was too packed.  

To solve this, CITS is working on adding new sensors to buses that will track seat availability, said Mr Lim. 

“We want to tell users if they can catch the bus and whether there will be seats on the buses for them,” he said.  

But these sensors are still in their beta testing stages, he added. 

“We are trying to improve our apps, so we appreciate any student feedback that could lead to a better user experience for everyone.” 

This article will be part of a series of stories about NTU Campus Rider Buses in NTU.  

Title photo credit: Song AiVee

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