Zipabout – 4D mapping

A pigeon can get from A to B with a one dimensional map, as they can fly in a straight line, but for us Londoners, we need that second dimension. It all began with the A to Z created by Phyllis Pearsall in 1936. The story goes that she got lost in London using the map of the time, which lacked detail. She was inspired to create a new map that was both easy to read and included points of interest such as bus stops, tubes, churches and museums.

Pearsall was a skilled painter and spent the next year walking 3,000 miles checking all of London’s 23,000 street names. She worked 18-hour days and by 1936 was finished. She printed 10,000 copies, and having been turned down by Harrods and Selfridges, received her first orders from WH Smith and Woolworths. Great success followed for the next 70 years until Google Maps, and other web-based applications, surpassed it.

Google Maps added more even more detail to her iconic drawings. There are now street numbers, business names, photos, directions and even the ability to search. All of those improvements, I would argue, are enhancements to two-dimensional mapping.

I recently met Zipabout, an ambitious start up, that have grand plans to take the concept of ‘mapping’ to higher dimensions. The first surprise is that there’s no map, but instead, a vast set of data from multiple sources.

We already know how to get from A to B, but how do we best go about our journey in a congested world that is full of surprises. Zipabout plan to integrate data from trains, planes, tubes, busses, roads, the weather and social media so that they can provide the best route possible in real time. If the third dimension of mapping is height, the fourth is real life.

Zipabout have been collecting information from every train in Britain for over two years. They know when it was supposed to leave and when it actually left. They track its progress and see when it is slipping behind schedule. They know the passenger numbers from the railway companies and the number of mobile phone signals. Using periodic downloads, they can even access the train’s braking system to observe loading patterns. This is key for monitoring stopping distances which also help to predict arrival times.

The weather is also critical. Rain, snow and leaves all cause delays and by having a detailed feed from the Met Office, they know immediately what the impact of adverse weather is likely to be. They can predict the arrival times long before the operators can.

Their data will also identify overcrowding. For example, if your normal journey requires a tube and a train and there is a problem, they would suggest that you walk to an alternative station or even take a bus.

They can even analyse messages from social media as you travel and assess happy and sad trains. Then there is personalisation. Transport analysis will no longer be divided between ‘business’ and ‘off-peak’, but look at you as an individual. If you have disabilities, heavy luggage or need to travel via a florist, this will all be taken into account.

The CEO, Alex Froom, has 20 years experience in digital marketing whilst the CTO, Dan Chick successfully floated and sold his digital advertising agency in the late 1990s. Chick has spent the past three years compiling this data set and is an unashamed train spotter – Oh to love your work.

They are planning a pilot program with Oxfordshire Country Council that will integrate the trains, buses and government bodies in the county by the end of this year. Go Ahead, Chiltern, First Great Western and Oxford Bus are all signed up.

The Department for Transport is highly supportive but have no funds to assist. The train companies have historically guarded their data, but Froom has convinced them they are all better off if they share. The management consultants want to own the project with exclusive rights, but that would be counter-productive as the system must remain open if it is to succeed.

The list of interested parties reads like Who’s Who, yet they are struggling to raise funds for the pilot project. Everyone seems to think that Google will do this one-day, but they can’t, as this requires data from the real world, not just the Internet.

Their future customers would be the 30 train operators, the bus companies, road users, airports and other specialist users. The data would also be sold to the digital mapping companies who will inevitably find ways to monetise this fourth dimension. Perhaps they’ll offer you a discounted glass of wine next time you are delayed at the local pub?

This is a dotcom solution to a real world problem. When Zipabout is fully operational three years from now, gross margins will exceed 60% and they will look for new markets overseas. By that time, UK passengers will be hooked and our great government, for the first time in history, will be able to make objective decisions about our transport system. Never say never.