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Department of Computer Science and Technology

The Essential Travel Assistant

Image: You. Smart. Thing. Covid-19 Essential Travel Assistant.

A virtual travel assistant that can help users make socially distanced journeys – including when travelling on public transport – could help us as we emerge from lockdown.

So says Janet Wang, an alumna of this department, who is working with Birmingham-based travel management company You. Smart. Thing.(YST) on its latest journey planner software, the Covid-19 Essential Travel Assistant.

Plans are being made to deploy the Travel Assistant at Warwick University later this year to help with the staged reintroduction of students onto the campus. The web-based service will give them individual 'covid-conscious' routes to use on arrivals days and as they travel to key buildings on campus such as the library and the Student Union. YST is also in conversation with regional authorities across the UK about using its configurable routing technology to help people with their return to work in the city when current restrictions on movement are lifted.

Now Janet, who graduated in 2006, would love to see the Travel Assistant deployed in Cambridge as well – and is looking for collaborators here to help analyse the data this would generate.

"I am interested in working with other data scientists," the former banker-turned-tech-entrepreneur says, "to map people’s movements around the University/city as buildings come back into use or are repurposed, and then overlay that data set with the transmission data on local Covid-19 cases. We could then create a travel attribution model." 

And with many concerns being voiced about the privacy and security issues around using our personal data to map the disease, she is quick to add that the data the Travel Assistant uses is all 'consent matrix' based – shared anonymously and only in accordance with people’s privacy preferences.

"We’d be looking at organising the consent matrix in such a way that we would be using people’s data responsibly and in such a way that they would want to contribute it," she says. "At the moment, there’s a lot of conjecture about how people’s behaviour impacts the spread of the disease. What a project like this would do is to gather the data so that we could really formulate some behavioural pictures and build the case for certain behavioural recommendations." 

"And if we could do that effectively," says her colleague, Chris Thompson, chief executive at YST, "it could help to prevent a second wave of cases." 

YST has been using personal data to create intelligent mobility solutions since 2015 and has R&D contracts with train bodies, the West Midlands Combined Authority, and Transport for London amongst others.

Last year, as a new step, it launched its Travel Assistant software for large venues to help them manage their crowds and make travel to and from the venue smoother. "It helps people avoid bottlenecks or delays while travelling," Chris says. "And it offers them bespoke options such as the ‘greenest’ route, or the nearest step-free access to the venue." 

Janet Wang became involved when, after 10 years working as a commodities trader in the City, she decided in 2015 to return to data science and launch her own tech start-up. Originally called Dipsta, it created personalised ‘'intelligent goodie bags' for events and venues, using data to offer consumers relevant promotions and encourage them to discover new businesses or experiences.

She met Chris through Birmingham’s Big Data Corridor project, an initiative to support small tech businesses in the area. "We got chatting about YST’s consent matrix-based personalised journey planning," Janet says, "and realised that my personalised goodie bag was a nice commercialisation proposition to add to it.

"For example, when lots of people arrive simultaneously at a venue, it puts great pressure on local roads, car parking, etc. But offering them a 'goodie' – such as a free drink if they arrive an hour early – can incentivise travel behaviours that help alleviate the bottlenecks," she explains.

So they joined forces. And when it launched last autumn, the Travel Assistant immediately received interest from stadia such as Wembley and Edgbaston, and venues including Birmingham’s Symphony Hall. But just a few months in, the pandemic arrived and everything changed very quickly.

"We panicked at first," Chris admits. "Until we realised that as our software is so scalable and easily deployed, we could look at reconfiguring it to help key workers and volunteers travel to hospitals.

"Both Transport for Greater Manchester and Transport for the West Midlands like it. However, they have asked us to focus beyond the immediate crisis on the longer-term picture, and on travel systems as local transport, services and education are re-introduced. That’s when we were asked to talk to Warwick University."

But both he and Janet are keen to bring the app to the University of Cambridge too. "Sadly, the message that people are getting loud and clear is that they shouldn’t use public transport," Chris says. "But we’re in a climate emergency, so we really shouldn’t be just getting back in our cars when movement restrictions are lifted.

"That’s where the Travel Assistant comes in. It can easily be shared with staff and students and they can be told, 'please use this to plan your journey if you are coming in to work or study because it can do a great job to make sure your route is safe and secure'."

"Cambridge would be a great place to do this," adds Janet. "And because things are moving so fast, nothing about the functionality is set in stone. We’d be happy to talk to prospective collaborators about reconfiguring the technical aspects and catering it to fit the location." Janet can be contacted at 

Published by Rachel Gardner on Tuesday 28th April 2020