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008 - The Beta Subways Experience

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There’s a lot of thoughts percolating aroung this. The most interesting to me is that these sorts of things are common – and totally fine! – in software, especially enterprise software that caters to developers. It’s pretty common in terms of agile software development as well.

It’s not as common in user-facing software and even less so in public transport infrastructure, which is why it caught my attention (“no data” being an error state, in and of itself). It’s a strange sort of scenario for transport maps to be replaced by screens that tell you that no data is forthcoming and that you should wait for the next refresh in 30 seconds.

I spotted this on a weekday evening and not during some strange witching hour. Trains were running every 5 minutes or so.

Anyway. Paper maps seem to be going away, even though they were perfectly adequate for almost a century. They’re being replaced by “advertising-adjacent hardware” (go ahead and steal that). More on that too, having watched the subway’s ‘technology’ shift through at least three or four different types of digital displays, each one starting off showing useful information and ending up serving ads.

I don’t fault the MTA for this though! Yes, replacing antiquated switches and command/control centers is important, but it is also largely invisible and doesn’t bring in operating revenue. But adding screens that can show more advertising, at larger volume, and is easier to justify with metrics is what makes at least a portion of the money come in. These screens are also highly visibile improvements that someone can point to as “look at us making upgrades!” Because – with no sarcasm intended – it is nice to see real-time train data at the station (when it works, that is). I also can’t fault Andy Byford* for bringing agile software development into infrastracture. It does sometimes break, but it also is quicker to deliver value and tends to have less fingerpointing because fixes can be deployed quicker too.

Note: This was written and photographed before Andy Byford departed the MTA. A loss for New York :/


by Roman
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