Meterpodu : A Work in Progress

Once upon a time, auto rickshaws in Madras had functioning meters, so the legend goes.Asking the auto drivers to turn on that boxy contraption today is like committing a small crime. The unrevised, state-fixed fare is blatantly unfair to these men in khaki. But pay the arbitrary sum they demand and, chances are, it won’t fair to you in the long run. What gives?

A tech-savvy NRI, recently returned to his hometown, wanted to do something about this. Crowd sourcing, a form of distributed problem solving, was his answer. “I figured that the only way to get some parity is if a whole bunch of us decided that we were only going to pay Rs. x and not Rs. y that the drivers demanded,” says Ananthanarayanan K. Subramanian (Anantha,for short). Image Source: A leaf from the Indian-Bred Calendar.

He explains the psychology behind the crowdsourcing tool Meterpodu. “So let’s say a autodriver demands Rs. 50 to go from T.Nagar to Saidapet from 10 consecutive commuters. Each of them refuses and counter-quotes a sum of Rs. 40. The 11th commuter is likely to be quoted a fare of Rs. 40, since the driver doesn’t want to price himself out of the market.”

Anantha teamed up with a friend, Mayur Narasimhan, and designed a system to collect fare data, process the numbers, and provide commuters useful information. If you key in two locations, the system looks up Google Maps and calculates the distance between them. It arrives at the official fare based on the fare chart. The driver may not take the same route, but this a good enough approximation.

What users actually pay on the ground is very different, of course. “Users can contribute these fares for various routes logging in via Twitter, Facebook or Gmail,” says Mayur. Their input goes into a database that computes the average fare. Now, with that number in hand, every user can hope to drive a decent bargain with any autodriver in the city.

How is Meterpodu Faring?

The new tool got good press. “A lot of people began polling the system to find out fares,” says Anantha. “The fare formula the system uses is dated circa 2007, which is when the government last revised fares. So it will quote average fares that are a lot less than what is being demanded on the roads.” The number can only lead to angst that the auto drivers aren’t plying according to the government-set fares, says Mayur.

Meterpodu enjoyed an initial wave of popularity. Nobody likes to be fleeced and the autodriver is a convenient villain in a farce of a transit system. “We don’t have anything against auto drivers,” Anantha hastens to clarify. “Most of them rent the rickshaws they drive and are forced to do what they do because their owners squeeze them.”

The lull that came later is harder to explain. While Meterpodu costs commuters nothing, everyone stands to gain once it reaches its potential. Yet, few contribute fares. Usually, crowdsourcing involves some form of gratification but here the user gets no instant reward.

Still, is that the holdup? “May be it is our mistake that we haven’t stressed it enough, but the whole point is for folks to contribute fares to the system and build up a database of fares,” says a bemused Anantha. So right now, the system is missing a vital piece.

To make Meterpodu an effective tool, the first order of business would be to drive more fare contributions into the system. There are tweaks in the works. Currently, there is a free app for smartphones, but its creators plan to release an SMS-based version for non-smartphone users as well.

Thanks to technology, and individual initiative, we have a handy tool to set fair prices for routes all over the city. Collectively, we may be able to resolve an issue that had us haggling and handwringing in the past.

Keep Meterpodu ticking

  • Go to the Meterpodu site.  It has a very straightforward interface.
  • Look up fares for your destination.If the government fare comes up, it means no user has contributed a fare for that route yet. Otherwise, you get an average fare as well. And that is your bargaining chip.
  • If you are a Facebook user or a Gmail user, Meterpodu lets you submit fares. The credentialing is necessary to prevent random submissions from people or bots.
  • You can also query @meterpodu, or contribute to it, via your Twitter account.
  • Meterpodu lets you look up fares for free. But if you never contribute fares, there may be precious little to draw from at some point.

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