A man pedals his cycle rickshaw during rains in Agartala

Johannesburg - A London-based startup backed by the billionaire co-founder of EBay and an executive at Uber Technologies is trying to make sense of seemingly anarchic transportation networks in some of the world’s largest cities.

WhereIsMyTransport compiles information on the routes of mini-bus taxis, tuk-tuks or rickshaws that dart through slum-filled mega-cities, but aren’t shown on any formal maps. Computer app developers and city governments then use the data to map out networks that link these informal routes with traditional city buses and trains. 

“The market for smart-city solutions in just heating up,” said Kim Fennel, the chief executive officer of deCarta, a digital mapping company that’s now part of Uber. Fennel, along with EBay co-founder Pierre Omidyar, backed the startup with 1.76 million pounds ($2.15 million) last year.

Organising Chaos

While commuters in the developed world can easily check the internet to track rail schedules and hail cabs from their mobile phones, life isn’t as simple for people in emerging markets. Routes taken by informal transport including motorbikes and the three-wheel passenger cars known as tuk-tuks can change without notice and have no set times. That’s if you know where to find them, and can figure out where they’re going, often in vehicles that are over-packed, unroadworthy or have little regard for traffic rules.

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City authorities such as the Municipality of Tshwane, which includes the capital Pretoria, as well as the Gautrain transit system in Johannesburg and the University of Cape Town, are paying for the information, according to co-founder Devin de Vries. App writers get free access up to a point, then pay fees.

WhereIsMyTransport’s staff jump onto passenger vans to track routes or mine global positioning data gathered from mobile phones to build on the platform, said de Vries, who started the venture after winning a Microsoft competition at the University of Cape Town that sent him to Silicon Valley for a spell.

Rival routers

WhereIsMyTransport is far from the first to tackle the problem of urban mapping in rapidly changing cities.

Digital mapping has spawned several rival systems. London-based startup what3words assigned a three-word code to each three-meter by three-meter space on the planet for a system adopted by the postal services of Ivory Coast, Mongolia and St. Maarten, according to the company website. Mapillary, based in Malmo, Sweden, offers users the ability to link landmarks in digital photography with mapping, its website shows. Zippr, created in Hyderabad, India, changes addresses to 8-digit codes that are overlaid on a Google map to improve its accuracy, the company said.

“Startups need to devise innovative revenue models because statistically-significant data takes a while to accrue and can run into privacy hurdles,” said Aditya Vuchi, founder of Zippr. “It requires scale and coverage, which are hard to create in the early days.”

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WhereIsMyTransport has more than 200 projects signed up to the platform including apps and websites, and the company has data for 20 cities across 10 countries, CEO de Vries said. The company is seeking to raise another $2 million this quarter.

Investors include Tom Boardman, former head of South African lender Nedbank Group and chairman of Athena Capital, early-stage venture funds Goodwell Investments and Horizen Ventures, and private equity investor Mertech Services, based in Stellenbosch near Cape Town.