They say necessity is the mother of invention, and what is essentially a necessity for travellers is the reason behind a new invention. Embark is a clever mobile-technology solution that allows its users to find a way from where they are to where they want to be, either by walking or by any form of public transport that services the place they want to go to. Available since the end of May 2016, it covers more than 60 cities in 15 countries worldwide (with more to come) and includes all forms of public transport including trains, buses, ferries, Uber, trams and light rail – almost in real time, with live arrival times, so there’s no guesswork.
An app for the everyday traveller
Soon after its launch, Embark became Apple’s second most popular navigation app in Australia, after the stalwart that is Google Maps. It will be available on Android in late June. Behind Embark is a lean, keen team of six who make up an Australian technology start-up company called Contact Light. There’s no HQ; rather, they are spread along the east coast and, perhaps not surprisingly, use technology to work together.
“Contact Light makes apps for ourselves rather than for a client,” says Jamie Skella, who is Director of Innovation and User Experience. “We create software and get it out to the public. Embark is our flagship product, but it’s our second app, after Edeo.”
Edeo helps students find their way around campus. Putting it together allowed the team to build up a suite of transit-based technology as well as what Jamie describes as ‘some pretty awesome ways to ingest and represent data’. The logical next step was to create something broader, not just for Australians, but for commuters and travellers around the world. Embark was born.
The 'Uber' of public transport
“There are lots of apps, for every city and every transportation network. There are apps which give you bus or train timetables and things like that, but they’re all different to use and you might not know which one you need. We wanted to make one app that worked for everything.
"I guess the analogy could be that if you go to a new city, whether it’s Denpasar or New York, it’s pretty amazing now that you just need one ‘taxi’ app, being Uber. We wanted to bring that same single app solution to people wanting to use public transport. And Embark works exactly the same way all around the world, so you don’t have to download a new app, or learn how to use new functions or features. It’s the same wherever you go.”
How to Embark
Once a commuter or traveller fires up Embark, it looks at their location and starts to gather information including departure and arrival times of the local transport options, so the user can begin searching and planning their travel.
“Aside from that convenience, the other aspect of it is its usability to plan a journey,” Jamie says. “On top there’s a little box that says ‘where do you want to go’, and you can put anything in there: a street address, the name of a landmark, or the name of a business – maybe you need to get to a bank and want to know the closest branch.
"Up comes a list of results, you tap on one and it gives you a list of options to get there. It will also give you step-by-step instructions, including walking instructions.”
Even somewhere like Denpasar, without a viable transportation network, Embark will provide instructions. It might be for walking; it might be the information that an Uber is just three minutes away and will cost you about $3 to travel to your chosen destination.
“We’re sort of combining the best ways to get around without owning your own car – and yes, we do think it is pretty amazing!” Jamie laughs. He says the concept is not original. The team looked at a huge range of good solutions related to commuting across the world. Embark was about trying to make travel even easier by combining the best of the best ideas while still keeping it simple to use.
“A lot of our process is about design and usability and improving the user experience, and about how to combine these very valuable pieces of functionality without making it feel cumbersome and hard to use. I think we’ve achieved that.”
Jamie recently travelled overseas and admits it was ‘quite cool’ to be able to use his own application to help him get around quickly and easily. Embark is available for free from the App Store, or by going to the Embark website. It works across Australia as well as major cities in New Zealand, North America, the UK and Europe.