In 2010, Boston Public Schools found themselves in a precarious situation with parents not knowing where their children were during a massive blizzard. The East Coast had been hit with a series of snowstorms labeled “Snowmaggedon” that cut power to hundreds of thousands of people and delayed school buses for hours. This led the school systems to call for action.
Chris Osgood, co-chair of the Boston Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, explained to Government Technology that the city’s experience during the storms led to the creation of a mobile app for parents called Where’s My School Bus?, that rapidly and securely relays student bus locations to parents.
Jason Shueh of Government Technology writes that the app was created with the help of Boston’s 2011 Code for America (CfA) fellowship. Joel Mahoney helped with the creation of the app and said the goal was to take a complex process and simplify it by answering the question “Where’s my Child?” The challenge was to make a system that automated a series of tasks: transportation staff authenticating a parent’s identity, finding a child in the school’s database, locating that student’s ID number, locating the appropriate bus using GPS, and relaying that bus location to the parent.
The city and the CfA team came up with a proposal for the app and sent it to BPS for approval. The green light finally came, but soon after fears about data security were raised. Scott Silverman, a CfA designer, said school officials had significant concerns about the app.
“There was a lot of concern coming from many different angles, a lot of privacy, security and regulatory concerns,” Silverman said.
The concept of the app was understood, but BPS leaders feared the app could be hacked and sensitive data like the identity and location of minors could be stolen and misused. They also feared the app could be too cumbersome for IT staff to manage and install.
“The point that we were trying to get across … was you can have highly sensitive data and you can have a highly secure and private way of making that data available to just the right people,” Silverman said. “Not only did we create greater efficiency and access to this data but we also improved security behind it … putting the data behind a firewall with a username and a password that could only be authenticated by the parent.”
After being convinced that the app could be secure BPS consented and a version was created over the course of a weekend and a pilot app was launched for parents.
Osgood has reported the app is very successful and user-friendly and is used more than 1,000 times per day. Other companies have released similar apps in other school districts. Silverman believes this is a great thing and that it “proves the point that there is a real need for this type of service”.
Parents at Boston schools are pleased that the app now gives them peace of mind and helps students avoid long and cold waits at bus stops.
“Our hope for parents is that in a small way this is making their day-to-day experience better, and over time, making it even easier to engage with the district as a whole,” Osgood said.