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School Bus App Aims to Help Parents Track Kids

By Mathew Katz | November 30, 2011 12:20pm

HELL'S KITCHEN — When a bus bringing Katherine Johnson's 10-year-old son home from school was a half-hour late during the second week of classes earlier this year, she began to panic.

She couldn't get in touch with school or bus company officials to find out where her son, Neo, was located. And she couldn't walk to the school to find out what the problem was because P.S. 51, just a block away from her home at West 45th Street and 10th Avenue, temporarily relocated all of its students to the Upper East Side this year because of construction, forcing students to commute crosstown for classes.

Neo eventually got home safe — but Johnson's panic stuck with her, prompting her to create an app for parents to keep track of their children's whereabouts during school bus rides.

"Instead of getting angry, we got proactive," said Johnson, 34, who teamed up with fellow P.S. 51 parent Jared Alessandroni, a programmer with app-creating experience, to design the application, which can run on an iPhone or Android.

The app, called Safer Bus, allows parents track their kids as they travel to and from school by having bus drivers or volunteers "check in" students as they board a bus, ideally using an iPad, and check students out when they get off the bus. Volunteer parents could also check students in and out using their smart phones.

Johnson and Alessandroni recently met with representatives from City Council Speaker Christine Quinn's office, who were impressed with the app and said they would work on pushing the Department of Education to implement it at P.S. 51, and possibly other schools, as a pilot project.

As of right now, the app itself is ready to go. But the P.S. 51 parents behind it are in the process of negotiation with P.S. 51, as well as the Department of Education and bus companies, to implement it.

"The parents aren't happy" with the current situation, Johnson said. "There's absolutely no accountability, so we found this a great opportunity to get some."

Parents would be able to access the free app to see when their students get on the bus, and track where the vehicle is at all times while the child is on board using an iPad's built-in GPS system. Drivers stuck in traffic or encountering an emergency could use the app to easily notify the parents of every student on his or her bus.

At P.S. 51, where about 300 students take five buses to and from school every day, that would mean an investment of at least five iPads, which cost about $629 a piece, to run the system. The buses are run by Amboy bus company in the Bronx. They did not immediately return a call for comment.

A representative from the Department of Education said she could not comment on the specific app, but did say there could be legal or privacy issues with tracking individual children.

The DOE began implementing GPS tracking systems on city school buses in 2007, but Johnson said the app would operate independently of that system.

The way the app is currently set up, each student would carry a card containing a barcode that drivers could scan to track passengers. Johnson said students could also be selected and checked in from a list.

"We built this because we wanted to help other parents," Johnson said. "In this day and age, with all the technology we have, having a child disappear on a bus just cannot be possible."