Ph.D. student develops SMS service for Magic Bus

BY MATT AARONSON
Daily Staff Reporter
Published March 1, 2009

Everyone hates waiting for the bus.

Computer Science and Engineering Ph.D. student Scott Wolchok is no exception.

So when Wolchok, who regularly rode the University buses as an undergraduate, saw a way that he could cut back on time spent waiting at the bus stop, he jumped on it.

Wolchok recently created UmBus, a program that allows students to check Magic Bus — an online bus tracking service — from their cell phones. By texting “umbus” to 41411, and using a few simple commands, students can find out when a bus will be arriving at a specific stop.

Magic Bus, a project funded by Parking & Transportation Services and carried out by the Atmospheric, Oceanic and Space Science Department in the College of Engineering in 2004, adapts GPS bus tracking to an online interface. The site gives a route view that displays the number of minutes until a bus arrives at a given stop, as well as a map view that shows color-coded buses’ positions on a Google map.

Wolchok had been using Magic Bus since its launch in 2006, even developing his own desktop and Web applications for it in his free time to help him and his friends access the information more readily.

He realized, however, that Magic Bus lacked a way to access its information from the street, where Wolchok said it would be most useful.

Wolchok said he already had most of the work done in the form of coding he used for his previous applications.

“I had this code sitting around,” he said, “and it occurred to me that I could do it in a couple hours.”

Since he launched the service, Wolchok has been testing it, tinkering with the code and gathering feedback from friends. As of Saturday, he said, only about 20 unique users had used the program, but now he thinks it’s ready for more traffic.

According to Wolchok, what makes UmBus really useful is that it’s available to any text message-enabled cell phone, not just those with Internet access.

On the Magic Bus website, “technically inclined” users are encouraged to find new ways of taking advantage of the technology.

AOSS and EECS Prof. Chris Ruf, who oversaw the Magic Bus project, said Wolchok’s service certainly wasn’t the first of its kind.

“A bunch of those type of applications have been developed by students during the last few years,” he said.

“We haven’t decided whether to make them available to people or have some kind of repository where we could put these applications people have developed and then other people could use them,” he said. “The problem is we haven’t developed them, so we aren’t doing any quality control on them.”

A guide to the SMSBus commands can be found at mbusreloaded.com/smshelp.