If you collect model buses you may want to avert your eyes as I decapitate the bus
March 20, 2012 4:01 PM   Subscribe

Ambient bus arrival monitor from hacked Linksys WRT54GL. Transport for London has a wonderful service called Countdown that can give live bus arrival times. For example, here's a page showing live buses passing No. 10 Downing St. Underlying this is a simple JSON API that, while not public, seems to be usable by the average programmer. So with its details deciphered (hardly hard since the web site uses the API) John Graham-Cumming set about building an ambient bus monitor into a model London bus. The idea is to glance at the model bus and see the times of the next two real buses you're likely to want to catch, and know when to leave the house.
posted by netbros (35 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Here I thought Ambient Bus was the name of a music podcast or something.
posted by Foosnark at 4:13 PM on March 20, 2012

You know, kind of like the Soul Train, only with less soul.
posted by Foosnark at 4:14 PM on March 20, 2012 [11 favorites]

This is fascinating in light of the patent trolling that's been going on with bus tracking/arrival screens (nonwithstanding the history of rail and airline arrival/departure boards.)

Ars Technica on arrival board patent trolling vs municipalities
posted by snuffleupagus at 4:16 PM on March 20, 2012 [3 favorites]

Here I thought Ambient Bus was the name of a music podcast or something.

Ahem, get the form right

Ambient Bus is the name of my next band music podcast.
posted by eriko at 4:29 PM on March 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

Note that the 'hacked router' in this instance is a repurposed router. No surreptitious breakins of transit authority networks required.
posted by Malor at 4:57 PM on March 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

I didn't know about the Countdown thing. Thank you!
posted by Grangousier at 5:00 PM on March 20, 2012

Yeah I had to read that a couple times. I thought at first that someone was saying that they hacked a router on the bus (like, for free wifi on the bus?) or were somehow using ambient wifi radiation given off by the bus to track them or something
posted by delmoi at 5:14 PM on March 20, 2012

Oh man. That is totally great! I would LOVE just an app or something that did that, but gosh that is so much classier and awesome. Great find.
posted by lazaruslong at 5:16 PM on March 20, 2012

Pretty cool, but really all I want is an Android application for my city's live arrival system (which is currently on web-based and has terrible usability problems). I'm taking a user interface design class and I rallied my group to design the interface for such an app, but the programmers still haven't figured out the part that actually makes it work. I think they think they know how, but they're from France so there's a bit of a language barrier.

Anyway, sooner or later Google will implement live arrival times into the maps app and I can be happy.
posted by Defenestrator at 5:18 PM on March 20, 2012

That patent trolling link should be in the FPP. It's awful- how are these cases being won, when it sounds like they just sue every city they can and claim the city is somehow infringing on their patent for an idea?!?!

I thought the rule of thumb was "You can't patent an idea". OneBusAway.org was open-source the product of UW students, effectively gifted to the city and King County Metro to run the servers when he left for a job in Europe... what, exactly, did ArrivalStar sue on the basis of? They had no apparent code, or systems, with which OBA was competing. They didn't offer a service for pay that Metro/OBA avoided by creating their own. So why did Metro and these other cities settle at all, even for a "nuisance" amount? Why is this tactic working?

Considering how poorly Metro is doing right now, how cash-strapped it is just trying to keep the services and buses it has running... I really, really want to track down Martin Jones and punch him in the dick.
posted by hincandenza at 5:24 PM on March 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

I love my nextbus app on my phone, but I've been seriously considering buying a cheap android tablet (hell, those things are down to like 40-50 bucks now) and making an app that shows the nearby bus lines in really big numbers and keeping it in the living room. Getting constant electricity to it is really one of the hardest parts.
posted by aspo at 5:30 PM on March 20, 2012

Hincandenza, I've seen big pharma pay licensing fees for freedom to operate around a technique that was published in the literature decades ago. I would assume that someone who received all their legal training from Wikipedia would be able to win that case, but if a DJ30 company thinks it's easier to pay than fight, I have to assume a city transit system would be absolutely screwed in court.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 5:44 PM on March 20, 2012

Whoa! This is awesome! Those could be sweet for little newsstands or coffee shops to have for people trying to decide whether to grab a paper before getting on the bus.

In New York, the MTA has been slowly adding these in the subway system. When they first proposed having countdown clocks, I remember reading about what a nightmare it was for the firm working for the MTA. I think it was a huge corporation like Philips or Siemens...and it was something insane, like a 5 Bazillion dollar contract...and then, about, 2 or 3 years in they were so fed up with the MTA that were just about ready to quit with the whole thing. The monitors hung from ceilings in stations wrapped in bubble wrap for years. I remember thinking, this can't be that hard. And I don't think it was -- I think it was just a nightmare to have to interact with the bureaucracy of the MTA on a system-wide project. It was probably about as complicated as this little bus toy, but the MTA created such a headache that it was almost worth walking away from a 5 bazillion dollar contract. And they still barely work. We're lucky if they put the clock on with a "see something, say something" slogan floating by.

Also, can someone explain how he hacked the Linksys WRT54GL (like I'm 5)? I don't know a lot about hardware, but I think I have an old one of those sitting on a shelf somewhere. I guess I have never really thought about what the wifi router is before. He turned it into a little Linux computer? And then he was still able to use it to get the data over wifi? So there is memory on there? I guess in normal operation the little LEDs on the thing are like a mini display for data on the network, and here he has just added his own display and changed the output to data on the transit network?
posted by This_Will_Be_Good at 5:54 PM on March 20, 2012

Yeah the Linksys WRT54GL is kinda famous for being able to install Linux on it and do cool things.
posted by Jimbob at 6:01 PM on March 20, 2012

This_Will_Be_Good: He installed custom firmware onto his router, enabling it to do much more than a Linksys WRT54GL can do when you unbox it new from the manufacturer. In this case, he used OpenWRT, one of many such projects. Another example, using dd-wrt instead, is explained in this popular Lifehacker article.
posted by distressingly thick sheets at 6:06 PM on March 20, 2012

I have a WRT54GL. The unit's sole raison d'etre is to allow users to install their own custom Linux firmware on it. It was originally the first version of Linksys' popular WRT54G router, though Linksys, in the pursuit of manufacturing efficiencies, reduced the amount of RAM and replaced the Linux firmware with a smaller embedded system. After an outcry from hackers, they brought the original back as the WRT54GL, specifically to address this need.
posted by acb at 6:15 PM on March 20, 2012

So neat, and nerdy and Dr. Who-ish and Brit-wiz bangy. Bravo sir. Imminently functional and aesthetically sweet.

I have an old WRT54G on a shelf, replaced by the N band version is called now, I bought it many years ago because of an AskMefi where everyone professed their admiration and deep respect for the thing and it definitely served me well. I think you can buy them for about a dollar now used, and you get enough of them and bundle them and I'm pretty sure you create a Linux supercomputer for real cheap, right??

But yeah, NYC's MTA....pffft...HA~!

I remember visiting London as a kid in '85 and the Underground had LED signs that announced when the trains would come and it only took the MTA 20 years to catch up. I'm pretty sure you need to be mentally retarded to be on the exec. board of the MTA. If Guiliani and Emperor-for-life Bloomberg the midget mayor had put as many resources and as much or equivalent attention into the MTA as they put into turning the NYPD into a paramilitary army for Wall street with high tech crowd suppression microwave devices, and carte blanche legal advisers to squash Freedom of Assembly, Speech and the Press, why if they'd done that, the MTA would have low-orbit re-entry transit vehicles and outer space rocket buses and subways at this point allowing one minute commutes from Manhattan to any of the outer boroughs, including Staten Island all for the cost of $2.25 per ride.
posted by Skygazer at 7:09 PM on March 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

Those routers are awesome. I've been thinking about picking up one to act as the brains for an arduino project for giggles. I won't use the one I already have, as it's the "modernized" one with less ram, and it's handling my home network.
posted by mccarty.tim at 7:10 PM on March 20, 2012

They're pretty expensive for what you're getting, though. They first one hit the market over nine years ago, and they've barely changed since. This makes them very, VERY slow by modern standards, with minuscule amounts of RAM and onboard storage.

A Raspberry Pi, if you can get one, would kick the snot out of it for about half the price. A Beagleboard would also be much more powerful, and only a touch more expensive.

Only reason I can see to buy one for general-purpose usage is if you needed the multiple Ethernet ports with the integrated switch, and didn't mind taking a giant hit on CPU power and RAM space in exchange.
posted by Malor at 7:37 PM on March 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

Only reason I can see to buy one for general-purpose usage is if you needed the multiple Ethernet ports with the integrated switch, and didn't mind taking a giant hit on CPU power and RAM space in exchange.

And even then, why bother getting a new WRT54GL when there are tons of older WRT54G pre v5 models (as well as many other wireless routers that support 3rd party firmwares) out there waiting to be found at yard sales?
posted by RonButNotStupid at 7:49 PM on March 20, 2012

Yeah, I meant picking one up via Ebay/Craigslist.
posted by mccarty.tim at 7:57 PM on March 20, 2012

The hack of a router is cool in the way that amateur projects are cool. I guess.

I've been using this for many, many months.
posted by mistersquid at 8:04 PM on March 20, 2012

Well, the CPU speed is about half the Raspberry Pi's, so not that bad. Much less RAM, for sure, and that is a big problem. Graphics is non-existent, but that is only important when it is important :P Flash doesn't matter much, it is easy enough to slap an SD card on either.

Anyway, I wouldn't ever buy a new 54G, but there are thousands being junked, and if you can intercept one for $20 or $30, why not? In fact, I bought about 25 just two weeks ago! I paid a lot less though :P
posted by Chuckles at 8:16 PM on March 20, 2012

A week or so ago I picked up a Cricket ZTE Score on sale for a little over $32.00 after taxes. That got me something that ran android with wifi, GPS, a camera, and bluetooth. The number of problems for which router hacking is an elegant solution is going to keep shrinking with cheaper smartphones pushing on one end and raspberrypi and it's ilk pushing on the other end.
posted by rdr at 8:17 PM on March 20, 2012

No wireless or Ethernet on the Raspberry Pi A model? Only Ethernet on the B? That is a big difference for many applications!
posted by Chuckles at 8:18 PM on March 20, 2012

For whatever it's worth, a lot of transit systems in North America use NextBus for similar realtime arrival information. A few weeks ago, I also discovered that NextBus has a really nifty mobile site if you open it up on a SmartPhone; it grabs your location via HTML5, and shows you arrivals for the stops closest to your present location. Very slick. No idea why WMATA or other agencies don't promote this service (SF does, and ironically, their NextMUNI site works in DC).

NextBus has a fairly robust API if you want to attempt a similar project yourself.
posted by schmod at 8:55 PM on March 20, 2012

no idea why I CamelCased smartphone up there... Apparently you can force the NextBus mobile site to open in a (location-aware) desktop browser by going here
posted by schmod at 9:01 PM on March 20, 2012

It was probably about as complicated as this little bus toy, but the MTA created such a headache that it was almost worth walking away from a 5 bazillion dollar contract. And they still barely work.

I don't know anything specific about the MTA's countdown announcement, but the hard and expensive part is not setting up an LCD display to write out a feed of data.

The hard part is equipping a fleet of over 6000 subway cars with positioning equipment, as well as the communications equipment needed to send the information to a central server. Then setting up a system to convert the millions of positioning status updates into useful information about when the next vehicle arrives. And of course, they're running underground, so you can't use GPS to do positioning; you need to install some other positioning system along the 800+ miles of track. And did I mention they run underground, so it's not like you can use cell phones to establish communications. Oh, by the way, the system never shuts down, so have fun installing everything around that.

I mean, why did NASA spend so much money and effort when they could have watched the moon landings on TV like the rest of us?
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 9:19 PM on March 20, 2012 [3 favorites]

It looks like the MTA contract was with Siemens, and was for $160 million. It's hard to find a lot of the original news stories now quickly, but it looks like there were problems on both sides of the deal.

However, for $160 million dollars, I could put someone at every one of the 468 stations with a walkie-talkie and a megaphone. Since the system runs 24 hours per day, I'll split it into three 8 hour shifts. So, I'll need 1404 people on the platforms, and 468 walkie-talkies and megaphones (to alert the platform). Let's say a decent Motorola walkie-talkie cost $30 and a megaphone is $25. Now, at some stations, the signal won't make it, so I'll need a guy in the tunnel halfway, so let's just double our people to 2808 to be safe, and add another 468 walkie-talkies. The people in the tunnel will probably want big flashlights to, since they may need those for signaling and for looking for rats and mole people. So, I'll add in another 468 mag lights at about $20 per piece.

So, I have 2808 employees, 936 walkie-talkies ($28,080), 468 megaphones ($11,700), and 468 mag lights ($9360). I have spent $49,140 on equipment, but let's triple that because the MTA obviously doesn't shop around. So, we're up to $147,420 in equipment costs. Oh, let's add in 2808 bright orange hard hats to make things official at $10 each too, so we are up to $175,500.

So, if Siemens got $160 million to botch their job, I can buy all that equipment and still pay my 2808 workers at least $10 an hour for about 2 years. Oh, and I would have had the system up about 5 years earlier than them as well.

And you wouldn't even believe how much more my tin can & string system could save!
posted by This_Will_Be_Good at 9:57 PM on March 20, 2012 [6 favorites]

I have two of these routers in a drawer, doing nothing useful. I suspect that is about to change, especially since I'm also getting a Twine soon.
posted by davejay at 10:09 PM on March 20, 2012 [3 favorites]

If you collect model buses you may want to avert your eyes as I decapitate the bus, gut it, cut out some seats and then put it back together again.

Oh, Britons. Adorbs!
posted by jsr1138 at 12:00 AM on March 21, 2012

The hard part is equipping a fleet of over 6000 subway cars with positioning equipment, as well as the communications equipment needed to send the information to a central server

Except that's already been done for you, because trains don't just roll around on the tracks willy-nilly - they have signalling.

Don't know enough about the NY setup to really comment beyond that, but most basic rail countdown systems, especially early on, just took signalling data and made it more "human." After all, nobody needs to know exactly to the metre how far away their train is, they just want a rough estimate in minutes.

These days modern trains, signalling and general comms tech mean you can do funkier things than that, obviously (if you're in the UK and use trains a lot the National Rail App is the best couple of quid you will ever spend), but ultimately you're still just building an interface layer to repackage data that Transport body already has. That's not easy, certainly (as someone who has looked at the post-process data feeds TfL throw out I can confirm that) but it's as a software/management job as an infrastructure one.

Interestingly for buses, though, it is a complex job because you do need the infrastructure. You also have to deal with the fact that things like traffic mean just knowing the average time it takes to travel between stops isn't accurate enough. Also, if you're tying it to things like automatic announcements about which stop is next within the buses themselves (as happens in London) then some interesting social stuff kicks in as well.

I remember one of the Project Managers a few years back, for example, telling me that early on during the implementation project they found they had to go back and re-record a whole bunch of stop names, after problems in testing.

Turns out it doesn't matter if a particular bus stop has officially been called "Roma Rd/Blackhorse Road" for over 80 years (and is even marked on the map as such). If everyone locally calls it "The Lord Palmerston Pub" then you damn well better make sure it says "The Lord Palmerston Pub" in the announcement, or face the wrath of a thousand retirees writing to the Telegraph demanding to know who gave TfL the right to rename everything.

As a result (and somewhat ironically) from then on they changed the rollout process for the announcement system to include a period of renaming stops. If, from bus driver feedback, it appeared that the unofficial names the locals used was drastically different from the official one (some of which had been around since the bus stop was invented), they'd either rename it or work the unofficial name into the announcement somehow.

Fascinating things, bus stops.
posted by garius at 3:01 AM on March 21, 2012 [7 favorites]

So if one wanted to cause some chaos, they could transmit bus arrivals?
posted by empath at 6:05 AM on March 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yes. I suppose so, you dastardly villain, you.

I want's me one of those Raspberry Pi thingies, myself...and I know a few tinkerers who would love one as well...I bet the culture building up around them is fun as heck, bygolly crackerjackers, Jiminey crickety...
posted by Skygazer at 10:35 AM on March 21, 2012

Just in case anyone wanders into this thread late; if you don't want to spend a couple of quid on a National Rail app that re-packages free information, you can just use the mobile version of their website on the smart phone of your choice: m.nationalrail.co.uk
posted by fatfrank at 5:46 AM on March 22, 2012

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