Yale Daily News

Grappling with a citywide bus driver shortage that has caused confusion and late arrival times, the New Haven Public School System has officially released an app called FirstView that families can use to monitor the location and arrival time of their children’s buses.

On Friday, Mayor Justin Elicker and New Haven Public Schools officials gathered in front of Betsy Ross Arts Magnet School to unveil the new app, which provides guardians with access to their child’s bus route, stop schedule, and arrival and departure times. In FirstView, caregivers can also set up notifications which alert them when the bus is a certain time or distance away. 

“I’ve been hoping for an app like this for so long,” parent Jennifer Cruz said. “Before, sometimes they would say the bus was coming and it didn’t show up at all. Now, I’m actually able to track it. It has been amazing.”

Carl Jackson, district director of transportation, proposed the implementation of a bus tracking app last year. He investigated similar apps used by other districts and discovered that New Haven Public Schools’ bus contractor, First Student, provided a free app called FirstView to other school districts. From there, Jackson worked with First Student to bring the app to New Haven through a pilot program last spring.

New Haven Public Schools released FirstView for general use last week. The app is available in both English and Spanish.

“We were able to capture data that suggested that the parents were really happy with what [FirstView] could do for them,” Jackson said. “And as a result of that, looking at the information from the pilot, we decided to move forward with it because it was a good time to do it, because the bus driver [shortage] was just creating so much uncertainty.”

FirstView is available through the App Store and Google Play. After downloading the app, users are prompted to register by entering their child’s student ID number. After setting up a profile, caretakers can view a route map which displays the location and movement of their child’s bus and a stop schedule with estimated arrival and departure times.

Parents and guardians can customize FirstView notifications to inform them when the bus is a certain distance or time away. There is also an inbox function on the app, through which the district or bus depot can message families about delays and other schedule changes. 

According to Cruz, registering for FirstView is straightforward and the app is navigable even for those who are not tech-savvy.

“I found it really easy to sign up, and it’s not difficult for a person that is not technology wise to use,” she said. “It’s pretty simple. [Registering] should only take you literally two minutes, if you know the student ID number.”

Linking each profile to a student ID number is a safety precaution, according to Jackson. It bars all non-guardians from accessing the personal information stored on the app. 

Parent Sang Yun said the presence of this precaution relieved his preliminary concerns about privacy. 

“One initial concern that I had was how they could protect privacy on [FirstView] because I wouldn’t want anyone to be able to download an app and see whatever all the children in New Haven were doing,” Yun said. “So I was relieved to see the verification process with their school district ID number.”

Some parents found FirstView’s ETAs to be spotty or inaccurate. Yun said that, in his experience, the bus’s true arrival time tends to be two to three minutes behind the app’s time estimate and a quarter of a mile behind the app’s distance estimate. However, this does not pose much of a concern now that the delay is consistent and predictable, he said. 

Parent Yury Maciel-Andrews said she has experienced glitches with the stop schedule. According to her, on one occasion she arrived at the bus stop at the ETA, but the schedule then disappeared from the app entirely. She refreshed it several times to no avail before it reappeared sometime later. 

Another time, the app abruptly changed its ETA to a time 10 minutes earlier, then incrementally raised it back up to the original ETA, causing confusion, Maciel-Andrews explained. These issues are “understandable because it’s a new app,” she said.

Justin Harmon, Director of Communications and Marketing at NHPS, acknowledged that FirstView is sometimes unpredictable. He attributed the glitches to occasional issues with the bus GPS systems and last minute changes to driver rosters.

“Sometimes those rejiggered bus routes aren’t able to be uploaded in time to be useful to the app,” Harmon said. “So if your kid’s bus route got changed because of some incidents like that, that’s not the app’s fault. It’s just that there is not enough time to load all the data day by day.”

The district tries to mitigate the confusion caused by ETA inconsistencies by reaching out directly to families via text or email, Harmon said.

Extreme changes to bus schedules are rare, but in these cases the district alerts guardians to the delays outside the app, he explained. 

“The app has certain limitations that we need to be very direct about with parents so they really understand what they’re seeing and when there might be a problem,” Harmon said.

Despite occasional inconsistencies, guardians found FirstView to be useful in saving time and settling uncertainty as to where their bus was. 

The app allows families to pace their mornings more efficiently and minimize wait time, Yun said. He noted that minimizing wait time outdoors is especially useful as temperatures drop.

“The general winter angst for a parent is how long your kids have to stand outside waiting for the bus in the cold,” Yun said. “Another aspect is how much they have to rush through their breakfast or not. It always felt inefficient to have rushed and then to wait outside for 20 minutes because the bus was late, and you didn’t know it would be late.”

The app also alleviates uncertainty about the bus’s location, Maciel-Andrews said. In the past, she would have to call the bus company or contact the school directly to find out about delays, but FirstView eliminates the need for that, she explained. 

In terms of the app’s future development, expanded language options would be beneficial, Maciel-Andrews said. 

“Non-English speaking parents may not find the FirstView app as accessible as English speakers,” she said. “Thus, I hope that language options are added to the app settings. That is an improvement that is definitely needed in the app, if possible.”

Since English and Spanish accommodate most of the district’s population, there are no current plans to broaden the translation options, Jackson said. 

However, if sufficient demand were to arise, the district could solicit First Student to change the app, according to Jackson.

“If there was an additional demand [for another language], we would turn that over to the people that provide the app service and then they would go back and evaluate it,” Jackson said.
The Board of Education’s administration offices are located at 54 Meadow Street.

RACHEL SHIN