Northwestern students create new shuttle app

Kelly Hwu

NU Shuttles, an app designed by Northwestern students to provide stop times and live GPS tracking for the University’s bus system, went live Feb. 8. After nearly a week of availability, its creators reported hundreds of downloads.

The app was a project of the Northwestern Undergraduate User Experience and Mobile Development Team, or NUX, a group that launched in Spring 2011 and is sponsored by Northwestern University Information Technology. NUX aims to promote student engagement by creating mobile apps relating to the University, said Ethan Romba, NUX member and ASG technology vice president. Romba pitched the idea for NU Shuttles to ASG as an NUX project.

“It’s by students for students,” Romba said.

Romba said although NU already has a shuttle tracker within Northwestern Mobile, an app that provides a variety of information about the University, it’s not optimized for mobile platforms.

“We wanted to start from scratch and take advantage of the Web to provide a solution for students,” the McCormick junior said. “There was a need for it.”

McCormick freshman Jasmine Alade’fa said she hadn’t heard about NU Shuttles, but after hearing the app’s features she said she would download it. NU Shuttles includes live tracking of buses, a characteristic Northwestern Mobile also has.

“Yesterday a group of us were outside and we had no idea when the bus was coming,” Alade’fa said. “I only look at the bus times, but if the app actually shows live tracking, that’ll be great.”

NUX consists of four members: Romba, McCormick juniors Gursimran Singh and Khalid Aziz and McCormick sophomore Zach Smith. Romba said the team began working on the NU Shuttles app in the summer of 2011. Romba developed the Web version, Smith developed the IOS version and Singh and Aziz worked on the server side of the application. The app was completed in December 2011, but it wasn’t released until recently due to administration negotiations.

“The administration provided us with data for the shuttle schedule and GPS locations,” Romba said. “There was a lot of collaboration and we’re grateful for that.”

Although the app has gotten positive feedback, the University prefers the current shuttle tracker under the University’s app, Northwestern Mobile, Romba said. He said he hopes the administration can be convinced to support the new app. NUX hasn’t been able to publish the app on iTunes because of the University’s preference and Apple’s restrictions, he said. For now, NUX is self-distributing the app through its website.

Weinberg junior Grace Rim said she doesn’t ride the shuttle because of its unreliability.

“Sometimes it’s late or sometimes it’s early and they leave without you,” Rim said. “It’s convenient to use only if it passes by me.”

Rim said she would download the app because it offers live GPA bus tracking.

NUX’s team works 10 hours a week with Academic & Research Technologies and Northwestern University Advanced Media Production Studio at its library base. Although Romba said these hours are not much compared to the hours full-time developers spend, the team is still able to move rapidly.

“It’s up to us to manage ourselves and stick to our timeline,” Romba said. “We have a self-governance, an independence.”

NUX is already working its next project, NU Signal, an app that will allow students to report Wi-Fi dead spots on campus. Students can send off reports of locations and details where they experience connection problems. Romba said the plan is for NUX to aggregate the reports and share them with the University to develop the appropriate funding distributions to solve the problems. NUX is planning for the app to launch in early spring.

“I love that not only do we have the tools at our disposal, but we also have an audience in the student body,” Romba said. “I love designing these apps with students in mind.”

NUX hopes to expand its team by adding two computer science undergraduates. Romba said NUX is currently recruiting and is reaching out to younger students so the students can carry on NUX’s tradition.

“We have all the assets from our team and recognition from administrators,” Romba said. “There’s lot of potential to making an impact on campus.”

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This article has been edited for clarity. Northwestern Mobile also has a GPS tracking device for shuttles, and the article now reflects that. The Daily regrets the error.