Traffic in Manila was and still is horrible. Seriously. In a city with nearly 24 million people, cramped into a 240 sq. mile region, is it any wonder?
Traffic laws barely existed. A 3 lane highway would commonly become a 5 or 6 lane highway on a busy Friday night. I’m pretty sure night time satelite photos of Manila show streaks of red: the roads filled with brakelights.
My morning commute was either a quick 15 minute taxi ride, if I left by 6am. Or it’d become a 3 hour hell ride if I left just 10 minutes later.
Is it raining? Better double all of your expected travel times. If you can get a taxi in the first place.
What’s all this got to do with a Halloween Product Launch?
The young, naive entrepenuers that we were back then thought we could help the situation. Eager to test our development team and process, we set out to build one of the first iPhone and web apps directly targeted to the Philippines population. A product that would help expose the traffic situation, and help users make informed travel decisions on which roads to avoid.
The people would often take to Twitter, lamenting the traffic situation.
“Trafik sa EDSA!!!”
“So trapik na sa C5, eh! 😡”
“Katipunan medjo traffic na! Take it if you can!”
Our app would consume all the local tweets, parsing them for keywords that could tell us the traffic situation for any of the major roads and thoroughfares throughout the metro. We’d convert this data into a visual map and rating system. Basically what Google Maps does these days for most cities in the States.
Google, however, back then, got that data from government agencies. The Philippines government wasn’t too keen on collecting traffic data. If they had, they’d have been forced to face the reality of their situation. But we young folk were determined to expose the data to the public! And hopefully help people avoid busy roads in the process.
We even built functionality into our iPhone app that would allow users to directly report the traffic situation wherever they were driving. Rather than rely on keyword parsing and sentiment analysis, with just a few taps we’d get fully accurate GPS coordinates and a direct sentiment from just how frustrated (or less likely, happy) the drivers were.
So shortly before Halloween of 2011, we launched the app to the public. And celebrated with a company wide Halloween party. We all dressed up. My boss became a ghastly old ghoul (some of us debated if it was really a costume), the head of marketing a vampiress, her suboordinate a lion. Everyone came out with some costume or another. We ate, we drank (these are Filipinos after all), we danced.
I was big into the TV Show Chuck back then, a show about a tech nerd who inadvertently became a CIA spy. Seeing that I was a tech nerd, and the only white guy any of my coworkers knew, I simply dyed my hair black, dusted off my suit, and called myself Chuck for the night. Most of my family already thought I was working for the CIA anyway (which I can neither confirm nor deny), so it felt perfect. I think I ended up just looking more Mormon than anything else, though, but whatever.
The product lasted a good couple of years until eventually the government agency responsible for traffic management rolled out their own. While I still hold ours was better looking, more performant, and easier to use, we didn’t exactly have government marketing resources, so we were a bit overshadowed.
No matter, it was all in the spirit of learning and tuning our process as a team. Our real product was still yet to come. And the Halloween party it all culimnated in is still a night I fondly remember.