Remix: The Small Startup That’s Helping Hundreds Of Cities Visualize The Future
Think of Remix as a video game for planners, which is leading to better public transit service across the country. The startup’s strategy is to empower planners through digital tools, use data as a storytelling tool through visualizations that show how a neighborhood could improve through transit, and promote understanding of data as a mechanism for policy change.
Public transportation is the lifeblood of cities. It enables all people–not just those who can afford their own car, taxi, or Lyft–to get where they need to go. However, transportation planning often remains stagnant due to the complexity of developing new policies. Anyone who’s waited for a bus that never shows up, or has had to pass up a train because it’s too crowded, or simply can’t get to work on public transit at all has experienced the ripple effects of insufficient transit planning.
“Despite the always-evolving nature of cities and movement of people, agencies don’t often change their transit networks due to the sheer amount of effort involved in planning for those changes, which should never be the limiting factor,” says Tiffany Chu, the cofounder of Remix, a software platform and data visualization tool that’s changing the way cities across the country are designing public transit.
Remix, which is based in San Francisco, began as a Code for America project when Chu and cofounders Sam Hashemi, Dan Getelman, and Danny Whalen were fellows, exploring how open data could yield civic tech innovations. After releasing their first tool, a simple, gamified bus route mapper then called Transitmix in 2014, they began working with planners–asking them about the hardest parts of their jobs, and what would alleviate pain points–to improve the software and make it more robust. In essence, they were designing the data visualization tools the planners wanted, but didn’t have.
You can think of Remix as a video game for planners, which is leading to better public transit service across the country. The three-year-old startup has grown to 40 people and has consulted with over 200 different public transportation authorities across the country. Revenue at the company–cities pay to use Remix–has increased by 300% annually and most of its clients hear about Remix through word of mouth, which suggests the formula is working.
Some recent clients include Honolulu; Miami-Dade County; the Central Ohio Transit Authority; Alameda-Contra Costa County Transit, in Oakland; Torrance, California; San Antonio, Texas; Puerto Rico; Birmingham, Alabama; Detroit; and King County, Washington. Remix has even worked with planners in the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. territory in the South Pacific, and Auckland, New Zealand; it’s currently working on plans to build out its international presence due to so many overseas inquiries.
What this roster of clients shows is that Remix isn’t just another good-intentioned Silicon Valley idea; it’s a real tool that’s making an impact.
To Chu and the team at Remix, truly improving public transportation starts with overhauling the process by which it’s designed. The startup’s strategy is to empower planners through digital tools, use data as a storytelling tool through visualizations that show how a neighborhood could improve through transit, and promote understanding of data as a mechanism for policy change.What does introducing a new transit plan traditionally look like? Typically, it involves compiling dense, hundred-page reports about the proposed project, which include how much an initiative–like a new bus line–costs, what its benefits are, and what its positive and negative impacts could be. Planners use a mixture of tools like GIS mapping, Excel spreadsheets, Census analysis, and old-fashioned pen, paper, and white boards to compile the information. They present it to the public (community review is usually part of most public transit planning procedures), and eventually request approval and funding from governing bodies, like city councils.
The complexity of gathering all this information, presenting it, and incorporating changes takes time. And the fact that multiple jurisdictions are usually involved in public transit planning just compounds the complexity. While large cities might have the resources to develop their own digital tools to streamline and simplify the transportation planning process, smaller towns and agencies don’t.
Instead of reading a boring hundred-page document, imagine being able to see all that information through dynamic maps, charts, and animations. This is where Remix comes in. The company works with transportation authorities to move as much work as possible to a central, digital platform. The tool turns transit planning into an interactive, instantaneous game based on real-world data, which would normally take months to compile and visualize.
“Our philosophy at Remix is to help and empower planners to have the tools they need to tell that story in a stronger way,” Chu says. “It takes a really strong planner with really strong storytelling skills, visualization, and understanding of how to break down [a transportation funding request] into something a city council member can understand. That’s what gets people to vote in the right direction of investing in transit.”
Remix lets planners design public transit services, like new bus routes, new bus stops, and frequency changes, on a digital platform that simulates the impacts of those design changes. That can include their cost, how they would impact travel times for individuals in the city, and how they would increase mobility for people–all in real time.
The company partners directly with cities and transit agencies, and is closely involved with its clients throughout the whole planning process. For instance, it creates a “customer success team” that consults with clients about their goals, prioritizes them, and then sets up a success plan to achieve those planning goals using their existing visualization tools or through new tools. The company is split 50-50 between people from the software industry and people from the public sector and urbanism. Since Remix views itself as a partner with its clients, and continually iterates to meet their specific needs, having expertise from both sides matters. Sometimes Remix flies out to its clients’ offices to work alongside them and get them familiar with the platform.
“Tech startups working with local governments has never been done well before,” Chu says. “Everyone and their best friend [in Silicon Valley] has an idea to develop technology and shove it into an older industry to try and disrupt it. Traditionally in technology there’s been a very technocratic approach and that hasn’t yielded any strong impacts or any sort off empathy-led product or service design.”
Read the rest of the article by Diana Budds on fastcodesign.com here.
Access the website of Remix here.