Welcome Archit, Kirsteene and Quinn

The new year is well and truly underway and brings with it new Rome2rio team members. This month we welcome Archit, Kirsteene, and Quinn.

Archit, Kirsteene and Quinn

Kirsteene joins us after time working in marketing, media, and management for online marketplace Etsy.com and for the coworking space Inspire9 where Rome2rio resides. She’ll be looking after media relations. If you want to get in touch with her send an email to press(at)rome2rio.com.

Quinn recently graduated from the University of Melbourne with his Masters in Software Engineering. He will be working as a back-end developer, integrating transport operator APIs into Rome2rio and providing monitoring tools to help our team better understand our data usage.

Archit is coming on board after completing an internship with the company. He is completing a Bachelor of Science, majoring in computing and software systems, at the University of Melbourne. He is undertaking user interface improvements, API integrations and data analysis.

If you are interested in joining our team then keep an eye on our jobs page and shoot us an email to jobs(at)rome2rio.com introducing yourself.

A Map Goes Unexpectedly Viral, With Help From Reddit & Gizmodo

Recent media coverage of the isochronic map we developed, based on a 1914 map by the well-known London mapmaker John G. Bartholomew, provides a classic case study on how quickly things can flourish online. (We wrote about the map and made some observations about how clearly it shows our shrinking world back in January. This post covers a little more of the behind the scenes activity.)

Our engineering team first heard about the 1914 map in a Reddit discussion (which, in turn, referenced an article in The Economist’s Intelligent Life Magazine). One of Rome2rio’s senior engineers, Miles Izzo, wondered how an updated version of Bartholomew’s 1914 map would look. He began a collaboration with front-end design team member Andrew Greig to replace the 1914 lines from the original map with up to date information.

 

Miles used Rome2rio’s routing engine to generate a rough heat-map of the travel times from London to every airport around the world. Andrew then used the generated heatmap as a base to create the 2016 version of the world travel times map.

World-Travel-Times-Isochronic-Map-2016

Andrew quickly ran into some interesting problems. The first was that the 1914 map, produced before the introduction of satellite imagery and GPS coordinates, contained many inaccuracies, some of which made our current data look “wrong”. Miami, for example, appeared to be almost 200km away from its real location; many similar issues existed. A significant effort was required to redraw and move place names to their correct locations. In other cases, country names and borders had changed; again, plenty of re-work was required to match the current reality.

Within a few days, Andrew had completed a 2016 version, close enough in design so as to provide a direct visual comparison to the original data. One challenge remained: the “key” on the 1914 map divided the world into sectors that could be reached “within five days journey”, then “5 to 10 days”, right up to “over 40 days”. A new scale was required to accommodate the availability of jet airplanes and high-speed rail: if we had retained the original scale, the entire map, in the 2016 version, would have been within the red zone of “within five days”.

Having solved that problem, we contacted Jamie Condliffe at Gizmodo. Jamie had written about the 1914 map back in November, and we figured he’d be interested in our 2016 version. He was, and immediately wrote a follow-up piece. That story gained a lot of attention and was picked up in short order by mainstream media, including the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph, the online travel industry specialist Tnooz, and a wide array of independent blogs and news sites.

We also posted the new map to Reddit, where we had first noticed the 1914 map. Reddit users loved it; within days over a million users had viewed the Imgur-hosted image, and the post had over 5,500 upvotes.

But the ride wasn’t over! The folks at Wellingtons Travel, a UK company that specialises in “old-style” maps of London printed on high-quality paper and canvas, saw the coverage and contacted us with a proposal to license our 2016 map for sale worldwide. It was an easy decision to make: within a few days we’d agreed on terms and production was underway. Which should be good news for the many Reddit users who expressed an interest in buying a printed version, including this request from “spookmann”:

Screen Shot 2016-02-03 at 10.58.02 am

No problem, spookmann. Head over to Wellingtons and they’ll look after you. Meanwhile, we’ll get back to our normal occupations, helping our users figure out the best way to get from Rome to Rio. And everywhere else*, come to think of it.

Rod Cuthbert

* This example uses an unusual city pair. A Twitter shout-out to the first reader who can tell us why on @Rome2rio.

The Places We’ll Go: 2015 Australian Travel Trends

 

Top Australian Travel locations

Australians are a well-travelled bunch – the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) reports that in 2014, over 9 million Australians headed overseas. Members of the Rome2rio team are no exception, having recently been to Toblach and San Gimignano in Italy, Alpe d’Huez in France, Ronda in Spain, Kona in Hawaii, Key West in Florida, and Rosarito in Mexico. When we’re not travelling, we’re often talking about travel, about places we’ve been and places we want to go. This passion and curiosity prompts us to ask questions about the world around us; questions like; where are Australians looking to travel? And when do they travel? To find the answers, we processed and aggregated a year of search records from Australian users of Rome2rio that searched for flights to destinations outside Australia.

 

Australian top travel locations

We found that across all Australian states, Northern America and Europe were the most popular destinations for travel planning during 2015. The United States lead with 17.2% closely followed by the United Kingdom at 13.2%.

Comparing our data (which records travel searches) to data published by the ABS (which records departures) for the same period, we found that destinations ranked differently. The top two countries by departures are New Zealand and Indonesia, which rank 9th and 12th respectively by number of searches. This ranking suggests that New Zealand and Indonesia are destinations that are already well-known and Australians are thus less likely to be searching for information on how to reach them.

 

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We then took Australians’ top travel locations and broke them down by state. Locations such as the USA and the United Kingdom were still the most popular in almost every state. However, we found that once you look past those wildly popular destinations each state had a different set of favoured places. For example, 13% of searches from the Northern Territory were to Indonesia, while only 1.9% of searches from Australia as a whole were to Indonesia. The same is seen in South Australia, where 6% of searches from South Australia were to Spain, whereas the national average was 2.6%.

 

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By then analysing when users searched for outbound and return flights (with dates) we were able to determine when they intended to travel during the year. We found that the Winter holidays and Christmas/New Year were by far the most popular times that Australians were planning to travel outside Australia while Easter was less popular in comparison. There were also notable spikes around Valentine’s Day and the week just before the Spring school holidays.

2016 is off and running and we are keen to see if there are any changes in this data this time next year. What do you think will be popular? Where are you planning to visit in 2016?

Source: Rome2rio logs of search requests made by users with Australian IP addresses from January to December 2015.

Time Flies? According To These Maps It Does

In late 2015 the Rome2rio team spotted a beautiful travel map on Intelligent Life. The map, which was published by venerable mapmaker John G. Bartholomew in 1914, illustrated how long it would take to travel from London to destinations across the globe.

World-map-isochronic-1914

1914 Isochronic map (credit: John G. Bartholomew)

We were excited to see such a fantastic visualisation of travel times and we were curious to see what had changed in the 100-odd years since; especially at such a world-changing juncture in travel technology. The first commercial flight took place on January 1st, 1914, so travel times started changing drastically soon after this date.

We created a new map using Rome2rio’s routing engine and unique repository of transport data. What we uncovered was fascinating.

2016 Isochronic map (credit: Rome2rio)

It is clear that travel times have improved immensely. Modern air, rail and road infrastructure has led to a ten-fold increase in travel times across the dark pink parts of the map.

Globalisation is also readily apparent. Journeys that would have taken 10 to 20 days by boat and train have been replaced by the speed of air travel, with most of the world now accessible within ½ to 1 day. This change is most apparent in Asia. In 1914 reaching Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Tokyo would take up to 40 days. Now, these powerhouses are a day’s travel from London.

Island destinations have benefited from the advances in technology as well.  Locations such as the Bahamas, Bermuda, Seychelles, Mauritius and Madagascar are all with ½ a day’s travel, suggesting demand for direct flights by holiday makers. For those who prefer colder locales, visiting the world’s coldest city, Yakutsk, is a breeze in comparison to the area surrounding it; from London, it takes ¾ of a day.

The 2016 map also showcases the dramatic increase in transport hubs across the US. Once you would arrive on the East Coast and trek out west by train. Now, direct flights will get you to San Diego, San Francisco, Minneapolis, Dallas, Houston and Denver.

However, the improvements have not been evenly distributed and some areas remain quite inaccessible. Greenland, Northern Canada, Siberia and the interiors of Africa, South America and Australia will still require some days of travel to reach.

If you still long for an extended trip then perhaps a trip to Buenos Aires is in order; the direct flight from London takes 15 hours – plenty of time to enjoy the in-flight entertainment.

– Kirsteene Phelan

Building Rome2rio’s Unique Engineering Culture

When my co-founder Bernie and I began to build the Rome2rio product, we drew heavily on our experience working at Microsoft in Redmond, Washington. As time passes and our team grows, we are consciously blending various cultural characteristics of US tech companies with our own Australian approach to work, to form a unique Rome2rio engineering culture. Here are a few of the things of which we are proud.

Hiring: the interview loop

The key to a great engineering team is hiring the right people, so naturally we put plenty of effort into recruiting. We use the same style of interview loop process that Microsoft, Google, and other US tech companies employ, involving five or six hour-long technical and coding white-board sessions. The approach maximizes information for hiring decisions and gives the entire team a voice on who we ultimately hire.

We also like to move candidates quickly through the entire interview and hiring process. Paul English, the CTO for Kayak, wrote that they have a seven-day rule for hiring. We are not quite that fast, but certainly faster than most Melbourne companies. Typically it takes us two weeks from receiving a CV or referral to making an offer – it’s good to instill a fast-moving and decisive culture.

As we have written previously, we are thrilled with the quality of engineering talent in Melbourne and the team we have assembled so far. However, it has become apparent lately that our good fortune with hiring is not due to geography alone – the Rome2rio brand is a strong pulling force, and potential hires are pretty excited about the idea of working on the product. Several candidates have told us they have used Rome2rio to plan trips abroad and thought we were another Silicon Valley-based start-up until they spotted the job ad.

Workspace: keep it close and fun

The entire Rome2rio team, except for our global content staffers, sit within a few metres of each other. With so many complex engineering discussions happening every day, this arrangement is key to keeping development running smoothly and productively. Bernie and I have both witnessed the communication and political challenges associated with distributed and remote engineering teams. Keeping everyone together is a luxury that larger companies often cannot afford.

We are also passionate about making the work environment fun so that team members are keen to come in each day and enjoy working with people to tackle interesting, challenging projects. Basing Rome2rio at the Inspire9 co-working space in Richmond, Melbourne has been a big plus, with a fantastic community and plenty of free food, parties, talks and other events to make each week interesting. We are the largest team in the space and hope to stay based at Inspire9 until we grow too large, or they boot us out!

The Rome2rio office space with everyone a cooee from each other

The Rome2rio office space, with everyone within cooee of each other.

 

Meetings: keep them to a minimum

Engineers typically hate having too many formal meetings that get in the way of being productive, so we are pretty passionate about keeping meetings to a minimum. We hold a company all-hands meeting once per fortnight where we present new features, report on conferences, share management news and learn from experiment results. We strive to keep the meeting under one hour; anything more and the team gets restless.

We run a 10:30 am daily stand-up for the engineering team at the office pool table. Each person gives a quick summary of what they accomplished yesterday, and what they’re working on today. In theory, it’s 60 seconds each (but, of course, it often goes overtime).

Daily stand-up around the Inspire9 pool table

 

Ship it: less talk more action

At Microsoft, whenever somebody demonstrated a cool new feature it was customary to yell “Ship it!”. It’s usually a joke (the demo is often pretty rough around the edges) but also demonstrates a culture of bias towards action that we love, and have adopted. This culture includes doing regular releases to production (typically weekly) and minimising the amount of process surrounding making stuff happen. We don’t employ project managers and entrust engineers to drive a feature from concept to completion.

#TechDebtFriday

We introduced a new concept this year: Technical Debt Friday. The engineering team loves it; it gives them a chance to pause their regular development work and pay off any technical debt in the code base.

What is technical debt? As any code base grows there is an increasing amount of badly organised, poorly named, confusingly arranged, or no longer used functionality that should be cleaned up. The debt builds up and is increasingly costly – adding more code becomes harder, more error-prone, and it takes longer for new hires to understand what everything does.

So TechDebtFriday is a tradition where we allocate each Friday to cleaning up the code base. Perhaps tool X now actually does Y and Z but was never renamed. Perhaps class A represented two things; B and C, but, was never separated into two classes. Perhaps the load time of the product on our development machines has grown from 30 seconds to 60 seconds, but could be reduced again with some simple optimisations. Basically, anything that makes our life easier, but has no immediate gain to our end-users.

It is interesting to note that a few years ago engineers at Booking.com complained that paying off technical debt is frowned upon by management. We believe it has real value.

Letting our hair down: Rome2rio team and friends at the inspire9 end of year party

Letting our hair down: Rome2rio team and friends at the Inspire9 end of year party

 

Staff reviews

Software engineers often groan at the thought of a performance review. Some of our team have had bad experiences with them in the past, and they can be rather meaningless if done badly. However, we believe they are essential for any business that wants to celebrate accomplishments and reward hard work. Perhaps the only thing worse than performance reviews is not having them at all. This can lead to a culture where promotions are only given out to those that ask for them, or those that are threatening to leave.

We have been doing staff reviews regularly since we hired our first developer. We use them as an opportunity to discuss recent accomplishments. We talk about how the team member can further their career and have an even bigger impact within the team. We ask for feedback on how we can better support them and their professional development. It’s a chance to reassess salaries, with the philosophy of promoting people based upon already demonstrated growth rather than promoting with the expectation of new responsibilities.

Gender imbalance

OK, we’ve covered all the positive things so here is something we are not proud of – our engineering team is currently entirely male. We hope this is something we can improve with time, but fewer than 5% of applicants for engineering positions that we have advertised were women. We have done better with the non-engineering part of our team, with 40% female representation. It is good to see the Australian Government investing to address this imbalance in the tech sector generally.

In summary

Many of the ideas described here are not new, and we borrowed many of from our experience at Microsoft. Hopefully, they give an idea of the type of culture we are striving for within our engineering team here at Rome2rio.

Are you a software engineer that likes the sound of our work environment? Check out our jobs page. We are currently hiring.

– Michael Cameron

Richard, Marty & Andrew Join The Rome2rio Team

Rome2rio’s development team continues to grow, and this month we welcome three new team members: Richard Fothergill, Marton Bodonyi and Andrew Greig.

Marton, Andrew & Richard outside Rome2rio's Richmond offices

Marton, Andrew & Richard outside Rome2rio’s Richmond offices

Richard is completing his Computer Science PhD at the University of Melbourne. He has been studying under Tim Baldwin in the Natural Language Processing group. He will be working closely with Marco on our team and tackling a variety of data science problems, of which we certainly have no shortage.

Marty and Andrew are both experienced front-end developers who have plunged head first into Rome2rio’s vast CSS, jQuery, and Javascript front-end codebase. With these two new team members we are really doubling-down on optimising Rome2rio’s expanding user interface for desktop, mobile and tablet. Both bring some much-needed design skills to the team, as well as a broad toolkit of technologies and best practices from their prior roles.

If you are interested in joining our developer team then keep an eye on our jobs page and shoot us an email at jobs(at)rome2rio.com to introduce yourself.

Stations Near Me: New Feature Helps Travelers Get Across Town

During a recent trip to the US, our content team member Kate had a chance to explore Washington DC using the popular Capital Bikeshare program.

Kate and her friend Hannah exploring DC by bicycle

Kate and her friend Hannah exploring DC by bike

Kate used Rome2rio on her phone to plan her journey around town, but craved an additional feature – an easy way to view a list of all bike share stations near her current location.

This feature request came up last month at our annual company retreat on the Sunshine Coast, near Brisbane. The retreat is partly a hackathon, giving the team a chance to focus on new features and ideas that wouldn’t normally get prioritized.

Kate’s use-case struck a chord with the team. We decided to build a new Stations near me feature that displays directions to nearby train, bus, tram, and bike share stations.

To access the new feature on your mobile device, simple click the Nearby button on the search screen and select Stations near me.

nearby

Rome2rio displays a list of nearby stops and the walking distance to each. For example, from our offices at 41 Stewart St, Richmond we see a variety of nearby train, bus, tram and bike share stations listed:

nearby-richmond

Our focus at Rome2rio is on providing comprehensive inter-city trip planning. However, we are seeing increased usage by travelers planning trips around the city they’re in, not just between cities. Give Stations near me a spin in your hometown, or next time you’re on the road.