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Making Transit More Transparent: Catching Up with Kona Farry

Published on March 16, 2020

King County Metro bus in the Westlake transit tunnel, Seattle, WA.
King County Metro bus in the Westlake transit tunnel, Seattle, WA. Image Credit: Joe Mabel (CC BY 3.0)

Kona Farry is an undergraduate student at UW studying Community, Environment, and Planning. Last year Farry created a website ( showing the real-time locations of buses, ferries, and trains in the greater Seattle area that received a lot of interest. (Also, since the coronavirus outbreak he has created an app to help remind people to Wash Your Hands!) Kate Merifield, Urban@UW communications assistant, sat down with him in early February 2020 to hear about what he is working on now. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

What do you study at University of Washington? 

I am in a small major called Community, Environment and Planning, and I am in my senior year. My focus is based on understanding the relationships we have with our communities. This includes social structures and processes of communities.

What urban project are you working on currently?

Outside of class I have a few things going on. The big one of course is the Pantograph app , which maps out real-time locations of transit vehicles.

What led you to this project? 

I had always wanted to see a real-time map like ones transportation professionals use. Early in my sophomore year, I was learning about how the transit schedule feeds work [transit schedule feeds are real-time data sources made available by transit authorities, such as Sound Transit, King County Metro, etc. ].  About a year later, I realized I could make the real-time map I wanted using the transit schedule feeds. This kind of tool existed in other cities but not yet here. Once I put those two things together it became, “oh, well now I have to do this.”

What urban challenges are you trying to address?

Anybody who has taken a bus knows that there are schedules and there are realities, and the two don’t always align. If we can at least have access to real-time information rather than schedule information, that helps ease the pain of waiting for a bus. To have good real-time data requires a lot of things, mostly on the side of the [transit] agency, and it also needs to be presented in a way that makes sense to people. I generally think spatially and it is very helpful for me to see actually where the bus is, and it also adds a lot of context. If my bus is on time right now but I see that all three buses ahead of it got stuck at 55th, then that is a sign that maybe this trip is not going to go so well. At the same time as a bus nerd and liking to know what kind of buses there are and what they usually do, and it’s kinda cool being able to see that kind of thing.

What has been the most exciting or surprising part of Pantograph?

For one I did not expect anyone to care. I was just learning about things and it wasn’t even until I got halfway through that I realized, “wait a minute, if I put another layer of spit and polish on this, other people might be interested”. It was publishing it that led to all of this attention. [Ferry’s app received a lot of press last year, including in the GeekWire and The Seattle Times.] The day the Seattle Times article went out, I spent eight hours trying to get my servers online because there were just that many people on the site and it wasn’t built for that scale. Once I saw there was interest it was like, “oh okay now I am learning how to make an iOS app so that I can publish on the app store”. I think the reaction my work got speaks to how important mobility is as an issue. A lot of people who are interested are people who take the bus with some regularity, and one of their obstacles is getting on the bus in the first place. They are desperate for anything to make that process easier.

A picture of Kona Farry smiling in to the camera.

Kona Farry is a graduating senior in the Community, Environment, and Planning major.Kona Farry

What kind of connections have you been able to make with other urban and transportation groups through your work?

When this was first out and getting a lot of media attention I met a lot of people at King County Metro, Sound Transit, and Community Transit that all have different roles in their agencies and find very different benefits from this kind of data. I have also met a lot of other transit developers and found myself getting more and more involved in open-source transit data groups. There are also the ‘bus nerd’ communities that include many Facebook groups – which are just people obsessed with certain buses or routes. I have met a lot of people in a lot of different areas that I would have otherwise not have had contact with at all. Many of these people are really awesome people doing really cool things, so it’s been rewarding for me to know them and see what they are up to and learn about the struggles that they face. That’s probably been my favorite part of all of this. That level of unexpected attention has inspired me to continue doing this and build on it in ways that I hadn’t anticipated. Something I am working on right now is adding performance statistics and historical logging, analyzing  transit performance and making graphs of how often buses are late and by how much and that sort of thing. I never would have done that if not for all this interest that came pouring out.

What do you see as the future of Pantograph?

Well, the direction I am taking it right now is restructuring the backend with an eye towards being able to extend it beyond just the Puget Sound region. I want to make it very easy to just plug in different agency information and in an instant get it going for Vancouver or Colorado or wherever. So growth I guess is what I see for the future, because this transit data problem is not unique to Seattle. It is something that everyone that rides the bus or the train or the ferry faces everyday, and if I can offer another way of visualizing the system to other regions with real-time data, I would be very excited about that. 

Geographic growth is one element, and another is feature-set growth. Adding things like performance analysis and creating a tool that helps riders use public services and helps agencies and planners build and improve public services all at the same time is I think the ideal case. This is also the unique challenge that I face as I move forward, of balancing how I present certain types of information to people on the app. Someone who just wants to get from point A to point B has very different needs than someone who wants to know exactly where each coach number is.

How do you hope to build off of your work after graduation?

No matter what, I see myself working on app development to some degree. Whether that is in tandem with a job or otherwise I am not sure. The ideal is to work on it as much as I can while maintaining a balance. As far as my career aspirations, I see myself staying in transit and I would love to spend some time as a transit bus driver. I think it is good if you are going to go into an industry, particularly into planning for that industry or improving that industry in some way, to understand the variety of perspectives that stakeholders have. Obviously the transit operators see a very different side of the system than riders or planners do, and I think spending some time understanding that role would pay off as I continue going down this path. Another option is spending some time in the municipal comprehensive planning world. Good transit is fundamentally dependent on land use, which is decided on by municipalities and counties. Land use entails all different types of things from bus lanes to development patterns and zoning. All of these things interact with and depend on each other. Exploring these different perspectives is mostly what I see for myself in the future. However there are many other options as well.

How could other students engage in a project like yours?

I would say that the best way to get started is to get started. If there is a need you see or something that you think would be cool, just spend some time working on it. It doesn’t have to become anything that exists for anyone except you, but by working on it and gaining that knowledge you will learn a lot. And more than likely there will be at least one other person who thinks what you are doing is interesting. You should put yourself out there as much as possible. Just get started on whatever you are interested in.

This interview was written by Kate Merifield, communications assistant with Urban@UW.
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