1 on 1 with our CEO: What We Do, Why We’re Here, and Where Transportation is Going

Dag at Challenge Cup

With our launch party right around the corner… (It’s tomorrow so don’t forget to RSVP to [email protected]!)  1776 caught up 1 on 1 with our CEO to talk about Transit Labs’ work, why we chose to be located in D.C., and the data-driven future of transportation.

Check out the interview here: http://challengecup.1776dc.com/news/challenge-cup-finally-transit-labs-makes-it-easier-to-fix-public-transit/

Transit Labs CEO Dag Gogue presenting at the DC Challenge Cup
Transit Labs CEO Dag Gogue presenting at the DC Challenge Cup

Or read on below!

This Thursday, Transit Labs—a 1776 member—will host its launch event  to show-off the work and tools that the Transit Labs team has been busy devising and building, said cofounder Dag Gogue. The event will feature a number of industry experts, national organizations, transit representatives, federal transit representatives, Hill staffers, and think tanks. 

It’s also just going to be a great party, Gogue says. 

1776 caught up with Gogue post-Challenge Cup and pre-launch to talk about Transit Labs’ work, why they chose to be located in D.C., and the data-driven future of transportation. 

Why and how did you become interested in public transportation?

I have a background in math and software engineering. Right out of college I worked for transportation engineering firms that were getting into the business of providing embedded software solutions in mobile devices to aid in data collection. I got to work on and write GPS enabled applications to collect survey data for specific geographic transportation areas, and eventually worked my way up the company ladder.

Why the switch to a startup? Why Transit Labs?

Well, that’s a good question. Transit Labs isn’t the first company in this arena, but we are one of the first to devise, deliver, and execute comprehensive solutions for the industry. The lion’s share of Transportation Funding comes from the federal government, and as I delved more into that realm, I became intrigued with the process. There is the National Transit Database which is used to determine funding allocations, which all transit agencies must submit data to. As I worked in the industry, I built products to solve a number of inefficiencies and improve reliability of transit agencies. But due to the numerous restraints that exist within the system, it made sense to switch to a startup.  Now Transit Labs covers the full spectrum: from devising comprehensive solutions, to building, and then implementation.

Why did you choose to locate Transit Labs in D.C.?

D.C. is the perfect environment for tackling an issue that affects the entire country. There is a great synergy of think tanks, academia, government, private sector and now a growing technology and startup culture.

What would you say is the mission statement of Transit Labs, then?

I don’t have any special statement memorized to tell you, but what I’d like to be able to do is to facilitate the use of “actionable intelligence” at the senior tables of everyone involved in public transportation. I would like to efficiently inform decisions on how many buses are allocated to each route, how long are times between trains supposed to be, how to budget and allocate funds to different transit systems all together. And I’d like to help Federal Transit Administration make decisions on how to appropriate grants to rural, urban, and large urban transit systems. The availability of high quality and specialized data can enable decision-makers to make the right decisions, and that’s what I want Transit Labs to do.  Enable decision-makers to make the right decisions, there’s the mission statement.

So wait, can you fix the D.C. Metro? What commons issues does D.C.’s Metro share with other transit networks?

I can! Well, okay, I wouldn’t say “fix,” just because in the grand scheme of things, the Washington Metro Area Transit Authority functions well in comparison to many other systems across the nation. But we have an application, TAP, that could absolutely help them improve and modernize their data collection practices and extract actionable intelligence from their data.

If you can’t have reliable timely information, you can’t make good decisions. A big issue is reliability of maintenance data. The Federal Transit Authority is pushing all public transportation systems to submit data on “state of good repair.” However, this data collection is not standardized, but good data can be compiled to minimize failure rates. Without the standardized data, repairs are haphazard—thus the breakdowns and the high rate of mechanical failures we see with the D.C. Metro.

One problem D.C. Metro and other transit systems face is one of short term funding. The standardization of data costs money, but can save money in the long run. The stakeholders who use those networks are always focused on the number of trains, busses, etc.—the visible aspects of public transportation. People responsible for operating systems therefore have skewed priorities to these visible aspects of transportation. The mission is to keep buses and trains running, and on time—their strength not in analyzing data and long term plans with actionable plans for maintenance and service consumption. If they can get away with not doing it, they won’t do it because it isn’t their strength. Transit Labs wants to make this easier, so people can use it better.

Transit Labs has made the investment in a software foundation to facilitate the data collection and analysis pieces, so that transit officials can now have the intelligence that they need to make fully-informed decisions to create better, cleaner, and cheaper public transit.

How does your product, the Transportation Application Platform (TAP), address this problem?

Well, there are three ‘modules’ that TAP uses to do this.

What are these modules?

There are two modules for data collection. First, the National Transit Database Module, and then the Operational Analysis Module. The third module is Performance Metrics, which aggregates data from first two modules to provide actionable intelligence to our customer base.

How do the modules work?

The first module is the National Transit Database (NTD) Module. There is a mandate by Congress for each transit agency that receives federal subsidies to submit transit data. The data collected is very detailed for and in various areas such as services supplied, services consumed, asset inventory, funding, incident reports, maintenance reports. The NTD Module enables transit systems to sync up their internal data and information systems such as maintenance, and accounting to the module. The module can then automatically extract pertinent data required for the NTD. This is a major advantage because the primary issue with NTD has been the quality of the data submitted. TAP addresses this by removing need for manual data entry and automating the collection process. TAP also allows self-validation of data without needing to wait for questions from NTD. The module has also already integrated about 10 years of NTD data into the application architecture to compare current submissions to historical trends.

The Second Module is the Operational Analysis Module. This module involves transit specific data. In addition to NTD, all transit systems have some standard internal, local and state data collection requirements, such as route specific and system-wide passenger activity analysis, origin/destination and travel pattern studies, asset inventories, and maintenance schedules. The problem is that much of this data, especially passenger and corresponding route data, is still done with pencil and paper. Transit Labs has developed a tablet based application to replace pencil-and-paper surveys, and the application uses geolocation to validate route data from surveys and immediately upload the standardized data to a transit agency’s own network.

The Third Module is the Performance Metrics Module. Once the data is collected and standardized, that data can be shared. With TAP, the local transit data from, say, Minnesota can be viewed and utilized throughout the country. This would be immensely valuable to transit agencies of a similar size and scope, as they could collectively view and assess transit intelligence to improve mode of service delivered within their jurisdiction. So at a high level, customers can use filters and characteristics based on Key Performance Indicators to identify top ten peers systems throughout the country and compare performance, service, and trends.

In basic terms, how will all of this data, and these modules, improve public transportation? Who will be the customers?

That is going to ultimately depend on exactly who is using the data. For example, the Transit systems have an immediate need to internally evaluate resources and services. The ability to compare cities, counties and states of comparable size that operate in a similar manner will be of immediate and tangible benefit to transit systems.

State governments will also have use of our data. State governments are of course responsible for some level of planning or funding of transit in their state, and our data can enable a bird’s eye view of transit networks within state jurisdictions to enable better funding decisions.

The federal government will also benefit. Whether it is the Department of Transportation, Congress, or other federal agency, higher quality data and more intuitive interfaces enables non-experts to make more timely and informed decisions on where to allocate funding. For example, expanding the availability of fleets and changing types of vehicles within those fleets are decisions being faced right now. There is a move away from traditional engines to more fuel efficient engines, and our data can identify where those older vehicles are and how and where best to phase in the new vehicles.

Although it is somewhat more of an open question, the private sector will also benefit. If a company is trying to decide where to build new strip mall, or other commercial center, how do they do the cost-benefit analysis? Transit Labs could provide data that shows the availability of transit networks or even provide an idea of where those networks will grow in the future.

Do you think public-private partnerships have a role in the future of transit? If so, what?

I consider Transit Laps a tech startup more than a public-private partnership, and we’re staffed with technology and policy analysts. That said, there is a huge role for such partnerships in the future of transit. Public-Private Partnerships are the new way forward. From privately owned lands used in construction of new transit networks to the strategic placement of transit stops, there needs to be a system to cultivate and grow a business or culture with the private sector that accomplishes the goals of public transportation. The success of Transit in general can only be created through efficient and effective partnerships between the private sector, and relevant local, state, and federal entities.  We’ve seen these partnerships grow in recent years, especially with start-ups—and we look forward to playing a larger role in future partnerships between transit and the private sector.

What policy changes are needed for public transportation?

I’m not a policy expert, but I would say two things. First, Congress could be a major catalyst in requiring the collection of accurate, standardized data for the betterment of the national transportation infrastructure. Second, Congress should strongly consider allocating more funding to transit projects. The nationwide shift to urbanization means the key to easing congestion is more efficient public transportation.

You were a finalist in the 1776 Challenge Cup. What was that experience like?

It was my first competition that did not feel like a competition. There was a great energy from all participants, and I loved meeting all the other start-ups and cheering for everyone, even our competitors. It was a win-win, and lots of fun.

You have an official launch event next week. Tell me about the launch event. Who will be there?

The launch event Thursday is with a number of industry experts, national organizations, local, county and state transit representatives, federal transit representatives, Hill staffers, and think tanks. The idea is to show-off the work and tools that the Transit Labs team has been busy devising and building, and to share ideas and get input from the experts in attendance.  Also, we rarely need a strong reason for hosting a fun party.

Anything else you’d like to add?

I’ve been lucky enough to be exposed to the various aspects of public transit – from state and local to federal. One thing I noticed is that transit officials tend to get a bad reputation because the quality of transit can obviously be greatly improved. But it is not for a lack of trying. Transit officials are very dedicated to their jobs and mission, and do accomplish a lot. It is not a fact that is often talked about and they deserve credit.