June 13, 2024

Combining anecdotes with data for a complete picture of transit operations

David Lonergan
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Graphic showing the GPS Playback product with anecdotal word bubbles
June 13, 2024

Combining anecdotes with data for a complete picture of transit operations

David Lonergan
June 13, 2024

Combining anecdotes with data for a complete picture of transit operations

David Lonergan

Much of a transit agency’s focus is on the future, on what’s next: improving service reliability, updating schedules, and exciting infrastructure projects that will create a healthier transit network.

At Swiftly, we find that many of these future initiatives are powered by learnings from historical data trends. As a transit data platform, Swiftly works with over 150 cities across the world to analyze trends like on-time performance, observed run-times, and speed data in order to drive lasting impacts to service reliability.

But there are often problems within historical trends that require a closer look. 

Understanding the data behind the trends

Sometimes agencies need to examine information under a microscope to identify and diagnose issues contributing to the larger trend. Whether you need to investigate early departures from a terminal stop or dig into detours, understanding why trends are happening is just as important as understanding what trend is happening.

That’s where Swiftly’s GPS Playback product enters the scene.

GPS Playback replays the historical movements of vehicles on a map. With GPS Playback, agency staff can enter any time frame in the past, from 5 seconds ago to five years, and see the location of any vehicle during that period, along with other relevant information including the vehicle’s block and trip IDs, the operator driving the vehicle, speed, schedule adherence, headway adherence, and more.

You can think of GPS Playback as the high-powered microscope that gives you an immediate diagnosis of your transit agency’s most pressing problems.

Within GPS Playback, we are analyzing the DNA of your agency’s data: your AVL. Individual GPS pings are the instruction manual that tells Swiftly where a vehicle has been and when, and it’s this data upon which all reports, trends, and metrics are built.

Across the industry, we hear a multitude of reasons why agency staff need a closer look:

  • Investigating passenger complaints
  • Helping passengers find lost items
  • Validating operator behavior

Let's dig into these use cases and how GPS Playback improves outcomes.


Customer service teams receive anywhere from dozens to hundreds of calls per day, many of which turn into complaints that require thorough investigation. The sheer volume of complaints can be difficult enough to contend with, but there are also common themes we hear that make resolving individual complaints difficult:

  • Missing data
  • Legacy tools and interfaces
  • Delays in accessing information
Answer customer complaints in seconds instead of days

One consistent piece of feedback we hear from our agency partners is that resolving complaints takes too long. Due to the nature of on-premises systems, data processing can require a bus to connect to yard wifi before downloading full datasets, so capturing the full picture of what happened on a given day could take up to a week. Agency staff investigating a complaint are therefore already delayed by the time they even begin their investigation. To compound this pain, agency staff are often thwarted by legacy tools which can include long load times, difficulty accessing tools (by requiring on-site access or VPNs), and complicated interfaces. Requiring a week or more to resolve a complaint creates a negative experience for agency staff and passengers.

With GPS Playback, agency staff can view a vehicle’s historic movements instantaneously, without waiting for the delays imposed by legacy CAD/AVL systems. Moreover, Swiftly’s dashboard is accessible anywhere with an internet connection, so staff can immediately begin an investigation. This decreases the length of an investigation to seconds and minutes instead of days and weeks, even helping staff answer questions during a passenger phone call—potentially avoiding a formal investigation in the first place.

Preventing missing data

We often think about missing data in the context of the passenger experience, such as ghost buses or historical data analysis in the case of missing service. But missing data—caused by operators failing to log in or onboard technical issues, for example—can impact investigations as well.

If an operator cannot log in to their MDT, passengers cannot see their bus in mobile applications. And if passengers do not know where their bus is in real-time, they are likely to call customer service. They may even miss their bus and call in a complaint.

Swiftly is uniquely positioned to help alleviate problems caused by missing data through a feature called Auto Assigner. When assignment data is missing, Swiftly’s algorithms match an unassigned vehicle to a trip, resulting in updated real-time locations, prediction times, and complete historical data. Agency staff thus have the ability to see additional vehicle playback data in Swiftly that their traditional CAD/AVL system might have missed.

Operator coaching

Beyond investigating customer complaints, examining the past can help us understand, celebrate, and remediate operator behavior.

While working with our agency partners on larger initiatives—like increasing on-time performance, updating run-times, and improving the customer experience—conversations often come back to the operator. Taking a data-driven approach to analyzing operator experiences, coaching, and behavior can help operators contribute to an agency’s top-level goals.

Empower effective operator coaching

Many agencies have organization-wide initiatives to improve on-time performance, but few understand actual operator behavior and trends. Staff often lack the tools to have one-on-one conversations with operators based on real-world data.

With GPS Playback, service delivery directors can quickly pull up vehicle playback recordings in these one-on-one conversations to give operators a visual understanding of the coaching being delivered. Since these vehicle playbacks are available in near-real-time, service delivery directors can have these conversations right when coaching is needed. We’ve heard from agencies that the conversations closest to coachable moments result in better understanding and outcomes from operators.

Investigate the root cause of on-time performance issues

There are various use cases for verifying operator behavior. Using GPS Playback, we have worked with Operations teams to help them understand where along a route operators are running early or late. By seeing exactly where an early or late problem begins, Operations teams can follow the right course of corrective action, whether that be operator coaching or working with their Scheduling department to appropriately adjust the schedule.

Ensuring route and detour adherence

We have also seen agency staff use GPS Playback to verify that operators follow detour routes correctly. One agency we work with was receiving calls about stops being skipped along a certain route. Within GPS Playback, users toggled on GPS breadcrumbs, resulting in a quick visual representation of exactly where vehicles along that route had been. These breadcrumbs make it obvious when detours are, or are not, being followed correctly. The agency learned that an operator was serving a detour that was no longer in effect and called the operator to resolve the issue immediately.

Emphasize the positive

Of course, GPS Playback can also be used to validate good performance. With the ability to quickly pull up exactly how a trip was run, service delivery directors can celebrate good on-time performance, vehicle spacing, layover adherence, and verify when complaints are incorrect.

Focusing on the details

By digging into specifics, we’ve found that transit agencies are making improvements at a granular level that build into larger changes with a wide impact. Being able to identify individual issues and quickly diagnose them results in speedy resolutions, efficient staff, and happier riders.

Ready to put your agency’s data under a microscope? Get in touch.

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