“Awesome” Railway App Goes Viral

Society Lifestyle

Mobile apps for monitoring congestion in railways stations, in particular the Odakyū App, were thrust into the spotlight by a recent typhoon. Similar apps are available from other transport companies, and they are expected to become a vital part of many commuters’ toolboxes as extreme weather continues to intensify.

Saving Commuters a Wasted Trip

Typhoon Faxai left deep scars across the Japanese countryside. As of rush-hour on September 9, the day after the typhoon hit greater Tokyo, many rail services had failed to resume operations, and there were no signs of anything changing in a hurry. Many commuters were glued to their smartphones, looking at social media for the latest information. Some no doubt wished they had used a different mode of transport, but, effectively stranded at their stations, had no option but to wait in the queues.

In an emergency, real-time information is like gold, because when a service is suddenly suspended or crowds descend on your station, you often only find about it when you arrive at your stop. The morning after Typhoon Faxai, tweets extolling the virtues of congestion-monitoring apps went viral.

“Thanks to the typhoon, I found out that the Odakyū App shows you how congested your station is. What an awesome feature! I’m not leaving home until the crowds subside.”

This tweet by the Twitter account @takano_seo includes a screenshot of the Odakyū App, a free mobile app provided by Odakyū Electric Railway. The image of the ticket gate at Noborito Station on 9:15 am on September 9 contains orange stick figures in place of actual commuters.

The app lets users see where trains are in real time, and can also display maps of stations and information on connections. The screen above can be displayed by selecting the station and pressing 混雑状況 (konzatsu jōkyō), “congestion level.” Odakyū’s system analyzes images taken by cameras mounted in stations, replacing people who are walking with blue stick figures and those who are stationary with orange ones. Images are refreshed every minute, allowing users to monitor congestion levels virtually in real time.

From the large crowd of stationary figures at the ticket gates, we can deduce that the gates are probably closed, which tells us that it would not be a good idea to go to the station.

Another screenshot tweeted at 10:27 shows that while the ticket gates have reopened, the station is still crowded. Later, at 1:02 pm, the crowds have finally started to disperse, and @takano_seo tweets, “I’m about to set off.”

While it is impossible to prevent disruption to services after natural disasters, Odakyū’s app should help avoid situations where you go to the station to scope out the situation, only to realize things are hopeless and return home disappointed. Twitter went wild over the “awesome” feature, with many tweeting to say that they had downloaded the app. We approached Odakyū Electric Railway for more information.

Data Analysis Helps Maintain Privacy

An Odakyū Electric Railway spokesperson notes that the company has seen a good response to the Odakyū App. The typhoon won the company new users for its smartphone offering, according to the official. “It’s great to hear that passengers find the app useful. We believe that keeping passengers informed is an important part of our role as a railway, and want to continue to explore new ways of sharing useful information with passengers.”

So why does the app use icons instead of just displaying actual images? “In the interest of privacy,” says the spokesperson, “our system analyzes feed taken from cameras in stations, and uses it to create anonymized images, in which icons are superimposed on photographs of the station when empty.” After images have been analyzed, they are deleted, making it impossible to identify individuals.

Odakyū decided to provide congestion data via its app to reduce the burden on passengers by making it easier for them to decide whether to take alternative routes, or to delay a trip, when services are disrupted by bad weather or accidents. Downloaded a total of 240,000 times on iOS and Android as of the end of August, the app enjoyed higher than usual traffic on September 8 and 9, as attested by the tweets above.

Apps Connect Railways

As noted in many replies to the above tweet, the Odakyū App is not the only smartphone app that provides real-time information on congestion levels in stations. In fact, the Odakyū App is currently linked to 10 other official railway apps. Of these, the Keikyū App and the Tōkyū App offer a feature named “Exhibition,” which allows users to monitor congestion levels. The JR East Japan App also allows its users to monitor congestion levels at Shinagawa, Shinjuku, and Maihama stations.

When asked what kind of information the company plans to add to its app in the future, the official states: “We strive to provide the services the community wants on the basis of our customers’ requirements. We intend to work with other railways to provide useful information to our passengers.”

It took a natural disaster for many people to find out about this convenient app. The Odakyū App might give you more space to think next time rail services are interrupted.

Odakyū App Downloads

(Originally published in Japanese on FNN’s Prime Online on September 24, 2019. Translated and edited by Nippon.com.)

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