Sakay.ph: Making Metro Manila navigable

MANILA, Philippines – Imagine your smartphone telling you the best way to get to your destination around Metro Manila's urban jungle.

All you need to do is fire up an app that tells you how to get there: what jeeps, buses, or trains to take, where to alight, and how long it would take to get from point A to point B.

But it does more than that. EDSA is congested. Take the train instead, it can say. Or, The lines at the MRT are really long. Better to take a jeep. The app shows you what roads are closed and where traffic is building up. It tells you if the Metro Rail Transit (MRT) has broken down (again) and whether you should head to the bus bay instead.

This kind of comprehensive, all-in-one app does not exist yet, but the team behind the award-winning web service Sakay.ph aims to one day build the platform that would make navigating Metro Manila’s convoluted transport systems much easier.

Sakay.ph, which won the Open Community Award at the 2013 Philippine Transit App Challenge, describes itself as “Google Maps or Waze, but for commuting.” Users simply input their starting point and destination, and the service comes up with a list of routes and an accompanying map showing the jeeps or buses the user should take, where to get off, and an estimate of how much to pay.

Sakay first started as a side project by Philip Cheang and Thomas Dy as an entry to the hackathon, which challenged software developers to create an app based on data made publicly available by the Department of Transportation and Communication (DOTC).

Since then, Sakay – now a full-fledged product of their software company By Implication – has added more new features, including a recently launched mobile app, with even bigger plans in the works.

Developing a service to help commuters find their way around Manila was an effort to bring order to the city’s transportation system using data and technology, Cheang says.

“There’s a lot of problems with transport here locally, and not a lot of it is easily fixable. But the one we could've addressed was information on how to get around,” he tells Rappler.

“If you go to other countries, the transit systems they have are very comprehensive…it’s very easy for you to look up either paper-based or app-based information. We don't have anything like that here. So we thought, why not attempt to bring some of that information, that order, here.”

Commuters looking for solutions

Though its popularity has skyrocketed since its launch, Sakay is not the first service to bring a more planned and scientific approach to travel in Metro Manila, home to about 12 million residents and plagued by monstrous traffic jams – a situation that, if left unchecked, could cost the Philippines P6 billion every day by 2030.

To get around the city, commuters have little choice: they can either sit for hours along EDSA in cramped jeeps and buses, or they can push and shove their way inside one of the coaches of the Light Rail Transit (LRT) and the Metro Rail Transit (MRT).

But even the MRT isn’t as reliable as it once was. Glitch after glitch has made it a constant mainstay in the news, and the Senate has even held hearings to figure out what went wrong with the aging, overburdened train line.

“Metro Manila is not a planned city, it’s a mess,” says Sakay’s Kenneth Yu. “The potential for a gigantic transpo f–#k up has always been built into Metro Manila. It’s just never been as obviously problematic as now.”

“On the other hand, the capability of technology, of people and of systems to give a solution is also improving,” he adds.

Car owners with smartphones can rely on Waze to know in real-time which roads to avoid and what new routes to take.

But for commuters, there’s no such app, says Sakay’s Rodrick Tan.

Sobrang kawawa ang commuters. Ang hirap na nga mag-commute in the first place, and then there's no data available to them,” he says.

Their own web service is meant to fill in that information gap, but the team has much more ambitious plans: they want Sakay to be the one-stop app of choice, offering both directions and real-time updates on the state of the city’s mass transport systems.

“Commuters are really looking for information, but it’s not comprehensive. One possible way is to merge all of those, to make it readable, to create a one-stop access for seeing what's the best possible route, the status of roads, and advisories,” Tan says.

Such an app would take a significant amount of time, resources, and manpower. It’s a challenge, but the 15-member team of By Implication is taking it one feature at a time.

Immediate impact

Sakay is not the only project of By Implication, but it’s certainly the most successful one in terms of its impact on people.

“Sakay and commuting directions, it’s basically non-existent. It's a totally new thing in the market rather than improving on an existing thing. In terms of the number of people that we helped and depth of how we helped them, it's pretty big,” Tan says.

In over a year, more than 150,000 people have used Sakay. Just last month, around 30,000 users visited the site. The spike of interest – especially after the launch of the mobile app, and the redesign early this year – has led the team to keep thinking up new ideas and fresh updates to improve the service.

One of the new features that will hit the site soon is the SMS gateway, a feature that will allow users with no WiFi or 3G connections to get commute directions via text message.

It’s not actually a new feature, Cheang admits. They used to already offer the service, using a cheap Android phone programmed with software to send out commute instructions to users via unli-text.

It turned out that the cheap phone plus unli-text combination couldn’t handle the deluge of inquiries, he says.

“That wasn’t really sustainable,” Cheang says. “One, it was a really cheap Android phone. We got featured on the news once, then the phone kept ringing and eventually crashed. Two, we were cited for violating fair-use policy. I think we were sending out more than a thousand texts in less than an hour. So hindi kinaya ng phone, di kinaya ng unli-text.”

“But we actually have a real gateway now,” he adds.

Rolling out new features and keeping their users engaged is critical for the Sakay team – key, in fact, to turning their big plans into reality.

Upcoming plans

Right now, the Sakay team is currently working to add new modes of transportation, such as FX and UV Express shuttles, the Comet e-shuttle, and tricycles.

Soon, they’re planning on tapping their own user base to add new routes or correct wrong ones, to keep the commute instructions up-to-date.

This last is probably one of the biggest challenges in a service like Sakay. Roads close, jeeps change routes, and better ways of getting to point A from point B come up all the time. How will Sakay keep up with all these changes?

It’s not something they can do manually on a massive scale, Tan says. It would be too costly, and too time-consuming. Instead, the service will rely on crowdsourcing to self-moderate the information that comes up on the system.

“A lot of it is actually self-moderatable,” Cheang adds. “If you look at places like Reddit, Digg, and Slashdot, and a lot of places where people upvote things, people will downvote things that don't work…We intend to take something similar.”

“I think the assumption is people are more willing to help than screw with systems. For Sakay, I think the user base is very loyal, users would be willing to help,” says Tan.

The team could also take a leaf from the way the original transport data on which Sakay was based was gathered in the first place. Cheang narrates how the DOTC got students to ride jeepneys with smartphones that logged the routes, then compiled all the data.

Sakay could use a similar approach in the future, by allowing their users to record the routes using the Sakay mobile app.

“It could serve that same purpose. Okay, I'm on a jeep that's not here yet, why don't I record this path? Or if I’m on a computer now, I can just draw a route that passes here. Ir I see a route on the website that's wrong, why don't I submit a correction? We're going to try to build that data via people submitting corrections, additions, via crowdsourcing,” Cheang says.

But building that platform would take more than just time and hard work. It would need funding, and the Sakay team is eyeing contextual, location-based ads to monetize the service and make it self-sustainable.

They are also planning to partner with government agencies, in a step to get their name more visible and to make Sakay much more than just a service for giving directions.

Imagine being able to get updates on how congested EDSA is, whether it’s a good idea to take the MRT, what routes to take best, and government advisories on road closures and rerouting schemes, all in one app. 

“That stuff I’d really like to see, because then it means Sakay would be more than just directions,” Cheang says. “We’re working really hard to figure it out. That’s what we’re excited about.” – Rappler.com