Helping others, the way you know how

Over the last few years, I’ve been doing charitable work upgrading the computer systems and network at a church run hospital in the eastern province of Zambia. This work has been supported by the Zambia Anglican Council Charitable Trust (ZACCT) in the UK, the Medical Support Group (MSG) in the Netherlands and private individuals to whom I am truly grateful. My own company, Realtime Trains, and others we do work for and supply us have also supported the project with funding.

Last August and September, I assembled a team of people from various walks of technology to aid a major week-long project to fully upgrade the infrastructure and replace a series of daisy-chained switches with poor quality equipment with a brand new system intended to last many years to come. The entire team came at their own cost or were sponsored by their employers to help.

The team together with hospital medical and administrative staff, photo Nick Jones

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Realtime Trains: 1 today

Today marks Realtime Trains’ first birthday. And it’s been one hell of a year.

The site had a complex gestation. It started in 2008, when, having corrupted the Excel spreadsheet in which I was recording all my train journeys, I begun development on a small system called RailMiles.

Various attempts to improve this led, over the years, to traintimes.im, a ‘static’ timetables website. For various reasons, a reliable source of scheduling information was never really possible until this was launched. And naturally, whilst building it, and after it was complete, I was eager to fill in the big gap: real time train information. In 2012, Network Rail released access to the open data feeds I needed, and I went at it.

It took six months from the public availability of the data feeds to the launch of Realtime Trains, derived from the code I’d written for (what was then) Timetables 2. The initial version was extremely simple, applying information from TRUST onto the public schedules with a small, but robust, prediction engine. Incremental improvements followed, including the heatmap (returning to version 2 soon!) and Train Describer information, plus general tweaks to the prediction engine.

Version 2, in all, around eight months of my time before it was ready for release on 23 August. This was a major rewrite, with a completely new web interface and processing engine. Even now, we haven’t stopped: a small army of helpers travels up and down the entire country, on a regular basis, checking and updating the database that creates reports based on TD movements.

Realtime Trains is truly getting better all the time, thanks, in no small measure, to you, the users. From a few hundred visitors a day to as many as 400,000 per month, the site has exploded in popularity.

You’ve helped us build a strong foundation for the future of Realtime Trains. Our website is more popular, and precise, then ever. Our app for Android smartphones and tablets was released last week, and Realtime Trains for iPhone is on the way (it should be out by the beginning of November!)

So, ultimately, Realtime Trains wouldn’t be where it is today without your continued use. Whether you use it to decide just where to snap a photo of that railtour, to nail your commute down to the second, glance at it when making a snap-decision to go to the station or the pub—or just give it a quick check to see if you need to run!—you have helped make Realtime Trains.

Thank you.

App pricing – messy and difficult

I launched Realtime Trains for Android today. It’s mostly gone down well – and I’m pleased with the results of what we have created over the last couple of months. I’ve priced it at £3.99 to reflect the development and ongoing costs of operating something like this – but this highlights a problem in the app market.

A recent article in Forbes suggested that there are around 800,000 apps on Google Play. It seems, to me, that the heavy majority of these are free. My ideology around apps is that they should be clean, simple and easy to use. Free apps are, typically, funded through advertising, venture capital investment or are done as a hobby. If the RTT app for Android were to be free, it would have to contain advertising – and this represents an ideological clash.

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Three down, one to go

It’s strange to think that it was only three years ago that I’d finished my A levels and was, teeth gritted, fingers mashing the “refresh” button, to find out what university I would end up going to. Four years ago, I didn’t even think I would go to any university – purely because I didn’t want to. I’m writing this to simply make a point that whatever happens, things can get better.

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ORR Real Time Train Information Consultation

I publish below a nearly full copy of my response to the real time information consultation that the ORR has been running.

Background

[This is a summary of Realtime Trains and my own history for the benefit of the ORR. For the actual body of the response, hop down to the beginning of question 1.]

Realtime Trains (RTT) is my newest consumer product. RTT is a website available free of charge to the general public at http://www.realtimetrains.co.uk, and was developed by myself. Its intended purpose is to provide a realistic and viable alternative to Darwin, providing predictions on future arrival, departure and passing times for all trains on the network. Continue reading