DMZ startup Flybits launches Ottawa Nav

Steven D'Costa, Ryerson University alumnus, was among the Flybits team that created the Ottawa Nav app. (Photo courtesy of DMZ).

Steven D’Costa, Ryerson University alumnus, was part of the Flybits team that created the Ottawa Nav app. (Photo courtesy of DMZ).

The Ryerson company that brought commuters closer to GO Transit is now tackling traffic in Canada’s capital.

Flybits, a Digital Media Zone (DMZ) startup, released its Ottawa Nav app on Nov. 18. The first of its kind in Canada, the app offers real-time personalized updates on travelling in the city. The initiative is a step towards creating the framework for what Flybits CEO Hossein Rahnama says is a “smarter, more connected city.”

Headquartered at the DMZ, Flybits also developed the official GO Transit app, GO Mobile, in 2011. The app allows users to view schedules, service updates and departure information from Union Station.

But while Flybits’ new Ottawa Nav app has scored more than 7,500 downloads in just one week since its launch, it’s also netted mixed reviews. Issues on privacy and practicality make some users question whether it’s just a cosmetic solution to bigger traffic problems.

Ottawa Nav gathers information from the city’s Open Data service and sends any travel obstruction notices to drivers, cyclists and pedestrians.

Updates include information on construction areas, collisions, road closures and public events that could increase traffic or block streets. Other app functions tap into resources from Ontario’s Ministry of Transportation to provide access to live feeds from traffic cameras across the city.

In addition, Ottawa Nav uses maps to deliver information on garbage days, speed limits and places to park.

All notifications are based on the user’s personal account, which include details on location, objective, time of day and other travel preferences.

An email or Facebook-linked account is required to access all of the app’s functions, a prerequisite that many users say is unnecessary.

One reviewer on Google Play said, “It’s another way to track you,” while another commenter refused to sign up and, as a result, could not get past the main screen.

Charbel Abou-Hamad, an Ottawa tradesman in oil and gas, said the privacy concerns are warranted, but still uses the app.

“People are now conscious of what they share from (hearing about) the information released about governments collecting metadata,” he said.

Abou-Hamad commutes at least three hours every day between jobs and uses Ottawa Nav for traffic information.

“This app, on the other hand, is a harmless application meant to benefit the public,” he said.

Gerti Dervishi, project manager for Ottawa Nav, said he understands the concerns, but added that there’s a reason the app requires email or Facebook-linked accounts.

Accounts save “relevant information based on where they are and what they’re looking for,” all of which he calls “contextual data.

“These context parameters play a role in the information that is given to the end user,” Dervishi said.

Coun. Tim Tierney, chair of the Ottawa Transit subcommittee, said the specific information provided from the app is better than radio or TV coverage.

“Ottawa Nav gives a much more regional view of a neighbourhood rather than a standard broadcast,” he said.

And with 68 roadwork and street closures currently listed on the Ottawa Transportation website, spanning across 23 wards in the city, customized information based on user location can be convenient.

Sewage and water main installations, road rehabilitations and highway expansions are just a few of the projects that currently affect commuters, often forcing them to look for new routes.

Downtown construction is also due largely in part to a $2.1-billion light rail project, to be completed by 2018.

“Our city is under siege with construction at this point. Good for taxpayers, but bad news for commuters,” Tierney said.

The city’s politics also come into play. Tierney said much of the road closures are due to political demonstrations and protests.

Thousands of government employees all work downtown and start work at the same time, another factor that adds to the rush-hour congestion, according to Tierney.

“It’s a mad dash,” he said, adding that the city is pushing public transit and promoting the new light rail to help mitigate traffic woes.

“Traffic is starting to get worse in every city, so we have to find a new way to deal with it.”

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