Open data, smart cities and mobile disruption: GoMetro founder says South Africa is ready for all three

“I really hope that the mobile industry moves away from information distribution to more of an information platform where the users are part of the conversations. Putting the curation in users’ hands means that if people do care about your offering, they will take the opportunity to improve it.”

At first glance, Justin Coetzee’s statement might seem a little odd. After all, the former civil engineer is the founder of GoMetro – whose success is all about information dissemination. GoMetro is South Africa’s most popular travel app and mobi site for public transport which puts real-time updates onto a phone screen.

Its creation wasn’t overtly radical; by the time it was launched in 2011 similar apps had been around in Europe and the US for a few years, but it was ground-breaking for South Africa. Offering people the ability to find the best route between two points via bus or train and helps to make public transport a more viable option for those who don’t want to be chained to the wheel for hours every day.

If GoMetro was about catching up with the rest of the world, though, Coetzee thinks that there’s a real opportunity in South Africa to reclaim its reputation for mobile innovation. He’ll be speaking tomorrow at the Mobile Web Africa conference in Johannesburg on the subject of “smart cities”.

Coetzee says that the number of low-cost smartphones out there is growing rapidly, and combined with rapidly reducing data prices the audience for apps is expanding into all areas much faster than most people realise. And with its experience in public transport, his company is of course in a very good place to know this.

“We see in our user base that there is a 1.5% reduction in BlackBerry every month, and 1.5% take-up of Android,” he says, “They’re not going back to a feature phone, they’re sticking with a smart device. The wave that is breaking is critical.

“We’re positioning ourselves to take advantage of the mobile app install base,” Coetzee explains, “We’re positioning ourselves to use emerging technologies like iBeacons, proximity systems and parallel systems. We’re looking at the smart card system especially.”

The smartcard Coetzee refers to is the ubiquitous NFC payment card which will be required for all public transport – including taxis – before long. Compatible with the EMV contactless payments terminals which are already popular overseas and work with NFC-enabled phones (including, probably, the iPhone 6) they’ll likely become the defacto mobile payments system for the country – as happened in Singapore.

They’ll generate a lot of data too – something Coetzee says mobile developers need to start thinking about now.

Data is something Coetzee knows a lot about. In order to make GoMetro work, he’s had to lobby local transport departments to get access to timetables and route information. Even after several years and a successful record, it’s a struggle. What he really wants is realtime data that will tell you when the next bus or taxi will arrive, not when it’s supposed to have been here. But getting access to that kind of data is still elusive in South Africa.

“Only Metrorail give us real time data,” he says, “Others think the job has been done by publishing schedule information… The attitude is often ‘people buy monthly tickets so they’re not going to leave us, we can afford to be late’.”

Coetzee is a strong advocate of the open data policies Cape Town has recently introduced, and has worked with Code4SouthAfrica to educate young developers on the advantages of lobbying for and working with open data.

For local governments, he says, it’s a philosophical shift that’s similar to the one businesses have had to make in the world of digital and social.

“The open data movement isn’t so much about making the data open,” he says, “It’s about putting the citizen first.”

Opening up government data sets should be the right thing to do because as a taxpayer, you’ve already paid for that data to be gathered. But it’s also good for business – allowing outsiders to create new ideas and ways of working with public data that can in turn generate economic benefits and new employers.

And Coetzee says he isn’t afraid of the competition.

“If everyone has access to the same data you’re not competing on preference based on who you know, you’re competing on user experience,” he says, “The market will naturally swing our way if we have the best experience.“

And this brings us to the point that Coetzee is making, that is why it’s good to relinquish control to your customers. Good apps allow users to take control and let the network learn from their behaviour.

The shift is already happening, he says, reflecting on the most recent ‘top website’ rankings in South Africa.

“I am excited to see Gumtree climb to the top of the digital space because it’s much more open than a traditional site,” Coetzee concludes, “You have to look at your apps as platforms and not pipes.

“I do not come across enough of that here in South Africa. Every single app out there is open for disruption.”


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