Ask a resident of Dhaka about the city’s biggest issue, what plight the commoner faces everyday, and the answer is very predictable. To the regular commuter in Dhaka, traffic jams are not a stranger. It is the most frustrating problem the city faces, and has been a growing complication in the lives of the locals. Part of the problem lies in the increasing number of inhabitants in Dhaka, mostly because of growing urbanization that attracts people from the suburbs and villages who migrate to the city in search of jobs and a better life. This trend has escalated in the last few years as more opportunities, infrastructure, and the overall benefits of globalization have developed in Dhaka, turning it into the economic and business center of the country, while many other cities and,mostly villages, have stumbled and remained either slow in progress or unchanged.
Ahmed Abu Bakr is one of us, an ordinary citizen battling the city life obstacles everyday, yet endowed with exceptional motivation to bring an end to the frustration that we all are a part of. ‘’At work, I design IT solutions and that gave me some understanding of how I might design something to help myself and other people against traffic’’, says Ahmed. He is actively taking the initiative to reduce the predicament that Dhaka commuters face due to traffic jams on an untimely and endless basis. ‘’Being stuck in traffic! I’ve been thinking about how to solve/ease traffic congestion for about 4 years now’’. Like the rest of us, he realizes that traffic congestion kills plenty of time and energy, as well as money, since our vehicles tend to burn a lot of gas, petrol, and other fuels.
However, he wants to do something that engages the people of Dhaka actively so it demonstrates that ordinary people can be enough to bring a change together, that we do not always need a higher authority, an organization, or an expert to give us the solution.
I had the chance to personally communicate with Ahmed after coming across a powerful and encouraging video on Facebook and the hashtag #garicholena that he has created along with his partners. I made no delay to approach him, quite curiously, and asked him a couple of questions.
Ahmed is setting off to launch a traffic app, called rastaRObosta, which will allow users to observe the current situation of Dhaka’s roads and streets on a real time basis, and thus choose wisely the less congested roads to commute and reach their destination. What inspired him towards this action is interesting –‘’I got some people together and tried to build a first version of a traffic app that would rely on people like Tongwalas to provide info about the roads. That information would then be made visible to anyone through a web page or mobile app. However, that had a lot of operational involvement and turns out that it would have been VERY expensive- in fact too expensive’’.
After the initial failure, Ahmed waited for others like him to take a step to create some sort of traffic app. But eventually, it had to be him, the first ever known individual in Bangladesh, to be starting this change. ‘’No one ended up bringing out something that would let me avoid traffic and the next time I got stuck in really bad traffic, I had plenty of time to think. I was stuck in traffic all the way from the Mohakhali flyover to Dhanmondi. It was on that day that I came up with the idea that I’m pushing now”, says Ahmed.
Ahmed was born in Dhaka, lived in Saudi Arabia between the ages of 4 and 12, after which he returned to Bangladesh. He completed his schooling from Sunnydale and Mastermind, and then graduated from NSU in Economics and Marketing. Currently, he is working in IT at mPower Social Enterprises Ltd., and ICT4D firm.
When he began spreading the word about rastaRObosta through a Facebook group, which was only about 2 weeks ago, he figured that he was definitely not the only one distressed. "In our first 24 hours, we hit over a 1000 members and raised 70K. By the fourth day, we are about to hit 2000 users and we’ve raised more than 1.1 Lakhs. I think that’s good progress, but there’s a lot more to be done. The primary medium has really been through Facebook. I’m trying to reach a very large number of people, who are tech savvy, naturally engage in sharing updates and who have access to internet and smartphones. Facebook was the obvious choice." Since the start of the group there have been many locals who are using the hashtag #garicholena and making updates on traffic, which is helping Ahmed to spread the word.
In our first 24 hours, we hit over a 1000 members and raised 70K. By the fourth day, we are about to hit 2000 users and we’ve raised more than 1.1 Lakhs. I think that’s good progress, but there’s a lot more to be done. The primary medium has really been through Facebook. I’m trying to reach a very large number of people, who are tech savvy, naturally engage in sharing updates and who have access to internet and smartphones. Facebook was the obvious choice.
Ahmed said that this is going to be a free crowdsourced app. In other words, people will be sharing information of their location to get real time road info and traffic updates. Therefore, the larger the number of users, the more precise the information will be. Ahmed explains, "the app will ask a user to provide information about the road that they are on or a road that they are close enough to see. A user can report that information through the app to a central server. Once they input that information, they will see a map of Dhaka city showing all the major roads, including lanes. The users will also see colors for each of these roads in green, yellow and red. Those colors will indicate the condition of the road. Those colors will be determined from the values that other users have selected for that area. The color will be updated frequently so that a user has the most up to date view of road conditions in Dhaka. As a user, you’ll basically have a top down view of the roads in Dhaka so you know which roads are clogged and which ones are free."
A good advantage of this app is that it makes people more active and more dependent on themselves than on the app itself. It is not about receiving information passively, like news and weather updates. Instead, it is about engaging in a communally shared effort and assisting each other. It will make the users collectively more responsible and helpful to each other as they actively participate and input information every time they log into the app.
Ahmed is raising the initial cost of the app through Google forms but in an interesting way: "the pledge is a promise. If you make a pledge, you are saying that you believe in this idea enough that you promise to contribute to its development. I don’t have the 5 lakhs to get this app developed. But I’m looking for at least 5000 people who think that this is a good enough idea to support and will be beneficial for everyone. 5000 people who are willing to contribute in making the app a reality equals 5000 people who will start using the app the day it comes out. If they share the app with only 5 other people, that’s 25000 people using the app on the day it launches. Imagine 25000 people updating each other about traffic conditions in the city. You could expect an almost real time picture of road conditions for all the major areas of Dhaka!"
He further elaborates, ‘’the app will be developed by an external company. The 5 Lakhs that I’m asking for is for the development of the app, bug fixing, launching it on Google play and hosting the database on a server for a year. The hope is that after one year, there will be enough users that the revenue from the ads will be able to pay for server hosting, renewing the app at the stores and upgrading the app itself’’.
The pledge is a promise. If you make a pledge, you are saying that you believe in this idea enough that you promise to contribute to its development. I don’t have the 5 lakhs to get this app developed. But I’m looking for at least 5000 people who think that this is a good enough idea to support and will be beneficial for everyone. 5000 people who are willing to contribute in making the app a reality equals 5000 people who will start using the app the day it comes out. If they share the app with only 5 other people, that’s 25000 people using the app on the day it launches. Imagine 25000 people updating each other about traffic conditions in the city. You could expect an almost real time picture of road conditions for all the major areas of Dhaka!
The app is certainly going to be beneficial for smartphone users, and in future it could be linked to some other online establishment or information system so that the data can be disseminated to those who do not use a smartphone. In this way the public at large can receive this convenience without having a smartphone. We wish Ahmed the best in his venture to bring the app successfully to the public of Bangladesh soon and with ease.
As for longer-term solutions to the crisis of traffic congestion in Dhaka city, that perhaps can only be solved through government intervention and the development of road infrastructures and flyovers. Increase in public transport and lesser privately owned vehicles on the roads can be another solution to the problem. Moreover, the growth of more urban city centers in Bangladesh, besides Dhaka, will help the spread of population to other areas and reduce the overcrowding of people that Dhaka suffers from for many years now.
Credit: The story was written by Rounak Ahmed for Future Startup and Edited by Ruhul Kader. Images by rastaRObosta