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App pulls out all stops for county bus riders

How full is the next bus and when will it arrive?

There's an app for that.

Tiramisu, a free smartphone application introduced on Wednesday, includes Port Authority of Allegheny County transit schedules and has the ability to show how buses are running in real time and whether they are full. It comes from researchers at Carnegie Mellon University's Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center on Accessible Public Transportation.

But there's a catch. Tiramisu (Italian for "pick me up") won't work unless riders aboard the buses use it and enable a signal to servers at CMU.

"This is a real-time bus tracking system that uses community input -- commonly known as crowd-sourcing -- to generate information for the community," said Aaron Steinfeld, a senior systems scientist in CMU's Robotics Institute and co-director of the Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center on Accessible Public Transportation.

The financially strapped Port Authority cannot afford to spend tens of millions of dollars to purchase the kind of tracking systems that provide real-time information to riders in Chicago, Seattle and San Francisco, Steinfeld said.

"So we're taking a very Pittsburgh approach to this and trying to do this by crowd-sourcing," Steinfeld said.

Tiramisu users are encouraged to press a button when they board the bus, allowing their phones to share a signal with the Tiramisu server, which can update information. Users also can opt to report any conditions on the bus.

"We already have an iPhone network infrastructure that's been paid for. Why not use it to do this?" said John Zimmerman, an associate professor in CMU's Human-Computer Interaction Institute.

The new the iPhone version is available, and developers expect to release an Android version soon.

During yesterday's demonstration, bus after bus arrived right on time at the stop on Forbes Avenue in front of CMU's Hamburg Hall, just as Tiramisu predicted. Thanks to iPhone-toting volunteer riders, there was information about seat availability.

That is crucial to people with disabilities, said Bill Newland of the Golden Triangle Council of the Blind and the Committee for Accessible Transportation.

Newland, a retiree who is blind, said he plans to get an iPhone with a voice feature so he can tap into Tiramisu. It could be especially useful for people in wheelchairs who need to know whether there's room for them on buses, he added.

"We're really impressed with CMU's ingenuity. We can't afford a system to do this, but this is a great alternative," said Port Authority spokeswoman Heather Pharo.

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