Rome2rio’s Development Team Expands Again

In August this year we wrote about Miles Izzo joining our engineering team, and his experience and ability to tackle some of the pressing problems on our project list. Miles has already shipped several important improvements to the site, including the printable results feature, support for new transport types and performance improvements. We also mentioned we were on the lookout for two additional developers, and we’re pleased to say that search has been successful, with Marco Lui and Alan Lawrey joining our team this month.

Marco recently completed his PhD studies at Melbourne University where he published several papers on text modeling, analytics and classification while teaching classes and entering Kaggle competitions on the side. He is a long time fan of Rome2rio and told us “I always assumed that you were another Bay Area startup”. When he discovered that we were local, and hiring developers, he was quick to apply. Marco’s scientific and research background will be invaluable for many of the challenging data science and analytics related projects we’ve got going.

Alan completed a Computer Science degree at LaTrobe University in 2011 and has been working on back and front end web development at migenius, a Melbourne company that provides ray tracing web solutions. We love that he’s clearly passionate about coding and works on a variety of projects in his free time.

Marco and Alan

Alan and Marco outside the AKM building (home to inspire9 and Rome2rio)

We have been delighted by the success we’ve had over the last couple of months finding experienced, talented developers here in Melbourne. We have employed the same recruiting, interviewing and leveling processes that Bernie and I used at Microsoft and all our hires would certainly pass the bar for hiring at the Redmond tech giant.

Melbourne’s universities continue to produce top quality computer scientists. The absence of tech giants such as Google, Facebook and Twitter competing for local talent certainly makes it easier for Melbourne based tech start-ups to stand out as employers and set a high bar for recruiting. We are certainly not the only ones observing this – just yesterday Evernote announced it plans to open an office in Australia to “take advantage of what it considers to be an under-exploited developer and engineering talent pool”.

Dissecting User Engagement Of Rome2rio’s Transport Images

In July we launched our Transport Images feature which displays insightful photographs of trains, buses and ferries on Rome2rio. Not sure if that ferry between Kuala Besut and Perhentian Besar is a leaky boat or a sophisticated catamaran? Do you reeeaaally want to spend 22 hours on that bus from Buenos Aires to Bariloche? Transit images provide information and re-assurance when venturing somewhere new with operators you’ve never heard of before.

Frankly, we weren’t sure how popular this feature would be, but it hasn’t taken long for users to show their approval: over three quarters of a million images are being viewed each week, after only two months on the site.

We love analyzing data and discovering how users are interacting with our site, and we were naturally thrilled to observe this level of popularity, with hover rates on the images ranging from 20 – 40%. Still, we wanted to drill deeper and learn which images our users were engaging with most often, as that analysis will help focus our efforts building the collection. Do users prefer internal or external photographs of the transport? Are bus photos more useful than train or ferry photos? How about ticket machines and station images?

We extracted the results from Google Analytics and manually classified images into different categories. Here’s the results:

Transit images clicks

Category, hover rate (calculated as percentage of times a category image is displayed), and samples

It turns out users are more engaged with images of buses and ferries (29 – 31%) than with trains (22%). This is perhaps not surprising – buses and ferries vary greatly in comfort and quality and the market is more fragmented with many smaller operators.

Surprisingly, users are engaging most with images related to rideshare offerings from BlaBlaCar and Carpooling.com. We presume this is because long-distance rideshare is still a relatively new concept and users are keen to learn more about the type of experience they’ll have.

We were surprised to discover no significant difference in engagement between interior and exterior photographs. This was consistent across all modes of transport.

Finally, images of ticket machines and train stations are also popular; it’s clear that many people worry about finding the station and learning more about where they’ll collect their ticket, and appreciate the extra degree of confidence these images provide.

We will use this data to prioritize our continued development of the image collection. We also rely heavily upon route popularity to prioritize our efforts, by sourcing images for popular routes first. Andrew Hickey and our global content team have made excellent progress since the feature was first launch and we are currently displaying 785,000 images per week:

transit-image-growth

Weekly transit image displays May 25 – Sep 13, 2014

We expect this will grow to around 1,500,000 weekly displayed images by the end of the year as coverage improves further.

Print Search Results Feature Launched Today

For some time now, our users have been asking for the ability to print their journey plans. We’re now pleased to announce the Print view feature that displays your Rome2rio search result in a simple, ready-to-print format.

Simply click the new Print view button at the top-right of the search results:

printview1

The results are then displayed in a simple list-style format, ready for printing:

printview2

You may expand and collapse each of the possible itineraries to decide which to print:

printview3

You can try the new print view feature here. We’re confident it will come in handy, not just on the road, but also for sharing, scribbling notes, and for posting your upcoming trips on the noticeboard at work. (Unfair to your fellow workers, but understandable.)

Focusing On Our Global App

​Over the last two years we’ve experimented with various ways of getting Rome2rio’s journey planning technology into the hands of users. Our web-based desktop solution is by far the most popular, with over 3 million unique users each month, and growing fast. Naturally enough — we are an online travel company, after all — we’ve also released responsive versions of the site for use on mobile platforms, and an iPhone App.
 
 
We took the App experiment a step further last year with geo-specific versions for the iPhone: the Melbourne Transport Planner, UK Transport Planner, Sydney Transport Planner and a number of others. Each of these apps functioned in exactly the same way, used exactly the same data and produced exactly the same results as their “big sister” app, Rome2rio. The difference was that they only allowed Origin and Destination entries within their geo-specific area.
 
 
photo 2 (3)     photo 2 (3)
 
Geo-specific apps like the UK Transport Planner (left) produce identical
results to the Rome2rio app (right).
 
 
This experiment has had mixed results: the Melbourne and UK apps were very popular, while we gained little traction with the others. That may have something to do with the fact we didn’t actively market them, that the same functionality could be had through the Rome2rio app, or that consumers looking for an in-city journey planner also wanted up to the minute arrival times for buses, trains and subways: the type of information that is delivered so well by apps like Hopstop, TramTracker, CityMapper and others.
 
 
In any event, we’ve decided to focus our efforts on our global app, Rome2rio, and plan a new release in the November timeframe. We’ve withdrawn the other apps from the Apple store. Look out for the new version of Rome2rio later this year, and check the mobile version of our web site, which also works on Android devices.

Rome2rio Adds Sights & Activities And How To Get To Them

Rome2rio is described by many of our users as a trip planner – an essential tool for early, high-level crafting of the itinerary for your trip. When we thinking about trip planning, we think of three key elements:

  1. Where to go and how do I get there? (transport)
  2. What can and see and do once I’m there? (sights and activities)
  3. Where am I going to stay? (accommodation)

Our focus at Rome2rio is providing a comprehensive solution to (1). We’ve continued to develop and improve our hotel search experience, which helps when planning (3). However, we felt we really needed to add sights and activities (2) to Rome2rio in order to offer a complete trip planning experience to our users.

We’re excited to launch our new sights & activities feature today. You’ll now see a new button labeled Things to do? below search results on the left. Click it to view attractions in and around your search destination.

Rome2rio's new attractions feature

Rome2rio’s new attractions feature

Attractions and colour coded with a range of categories including amusement parks, museums, parks, lighthouses, churches, dams, aquariums, sculptures, theaters, memorials and waterfalls.

Hover over an attraction to view the details including a photo, description, and directions to the attraction from your current search destination.

attraction-hover

Developing the attractions feature has been challenging, especially given the absence of an existing global, curated, comprehensive and accurate source of sights and activities. Viator’s repository is high quality, however their focus is solely on paid tours and activities, and not the free attractions which we also require. TripAdvisor’s Things to do pages are perhaps the most comprehensive offering on the web, however the content is largely user generated we found occasional inaccuracies in the location data. Lonely Planet also owns an excellent attractions repository based on their book content, but they are not focused on licensing the data to third parties, so that wasn’t an option.

Ultimately we chose to develop our own repository based on publicly available Wikipedia and Flickr data. We are utilizing our ever-diligent content team to review and refine the repository, and have developed in-house tools for the required tasks.

Internal quality control and review tool used by the Rome2rio content team

Internal quality control and review tool used by the Rome2rio content team

No doubt the feature will improve with time. We plan to integrate Viator’s bookable tours and activities in the near future, and we may explore adding Tripadvisor review scores. User feedback will be critical for identifying quality issues and missing attractions. In the meantime, this new addition to Rome2rio certainly enhances the overall value of the site, and we hope you enjoy it as much as we do.

Rome2rio Expands Its Engineering Team

We’re excited to announce another addition to the growing Rome2rio engineering team based in Melbourne, Australia. Miles Izzo completed his Software Engineering (Honours) degree back in 2004 and has worked on a range of interesting data science problems during his career so far. As a seasoned developer he’ll no doubt play a major role in our mission to organise and search the world’s transport information.

Miles Izzo

We’re actively looking for two more experienced engineers to join our team. If you are based in Melbourne, have a Computer Science or Software Engineer background, and would like to work on a range of interesting problems with a fun, creative group of people then check out the job description.

Job description

Transportation Images Add Real Value To Search Results

Besides demonstrating that an A380 is a lot bigger and probably more comfortable than a 737, there’s not a lot of consumer value in showing an image of the airplane in a search result. Most of us know what to expect when we fly; we’re familiar with the planes, and with the on-board experience. But that’s not the case when it comes to other forms of transportation. 

At Rome2rio, we suspect many people choose to fly even when apparently better (lower cost, more comfortable, faster door-to-door) options are available. The same goes for train travelers and self-drivers, who might be reluctant to choose bus or rideshare, even in cases where those options offer real benefits over their usual choice.

Therein lies the reasoning behind Rome2rio’s new Transportation Images feature, which is being progressively rolled out. By displaying images of the various transport offerings within our search results, we expect our users will look at alternatives more closely, perhaps deciding that their bias towards air (or rail, or self-drive) might be a prejudice that deserves closer examination.

This example demonstrates how the Transportation Images feature is integrated into our search results:

Screen Shot 2014-07-08 at 12.39.45 PM

This image of the fast-train operating from downtown Milan to downtown Rome will convince many travelers it’s a better option than flying.

In some cases, we expect that seeing an image of the vehicle will dispel a fear that it might be antiquated, slow, or somehow uncomfortable. Buses are a case in point: they simply don’t enjoy a great reputation for luxury. Images like these help reduce those concerns:

Buses

Modern buses compete with trains for luxury, and often beat them on price.

With ferries, there is often the fear of the unknown. How big is it? Is it safe? Will I need to wear a life jacket? When people see the ferries that operate on many routes nowadays, they express surprise… which is not surprising, given their space-age designs, which positively ooze speed and comfort.

Ferries

Wave-piercing hull designs (from Tasmania!) have revolutionised ferry travel.

That’s not to say that all ferries are ocean-going liners, or that travelers are always looking for that type of experience. Sometimes, it’s good to know your travel experience will be authentic, and somehow connected to the history and culture of the place you’re visiting.

Boats

In many destinations, travelers are searching for the slow option.

Finally, there are some forms of transportation that are so specialised and site-specific that only a photograph or video can deliver a useful explanation. Funiculars, suspension railways and maglev railways all fit this bill.

CableCar

Wuppertal’s suspension railway, and Schilthorn’s funicular: now you know.

As we continue to roll-out this feature over the coming months, we’ll be loading tens of thousands of images for trains, buses, ferries and other forms of transportation. As a result, we expect to see our users make journey plans with greater confidence to try something new: something that’s probably less expensive, possibly “greener”, and perhaps a change from their old travel habits.

Rod Cuthbert