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VOL. XXII NO. 2, MAY 1-15, 2012
A work in progress
By Vijaysree Venkatraman

Once upon a time, auto-rickshaws in the city had functioning meters, so the legend goes.

Asking auto-drivers to turn on that boxy contraption today is like committing a small crime. The unrevised, State-fixed fare is blatantly unfair to these men (only a few of them these days) in khaki. But pay the arbitrary sum they demand and, chances are that it won't be fair to you in the long run. What gives?

A tech-savvy NRI, recently returned to his home town, decided to do something about this. Crowd-sourcing, a form of distributed problem solving, could be the answer. "I figured that the only way to get some parity is if a whole bunch of us decided that we were only going to pay Rs. x and not Rs. y that the drivers demanded," says Ananthanarayanan K. Subramanian (Anantha, for short).

He explains the psychology behind the crowd-sourcing tool Meterpodu. "So let's say an autodriver demands Rs. 50 to go from T'Nagar to Saidapet from 10 consecutive commuters. Each of them refuses and counter-quotes a sum of Rs. 40. The 11th commuter is likely to be quoted a fare of Rs. 40, since the driver doesn't want to price himself out of the market."

Anantha teamed up with a friend, Mayur Narasimhan, and designed a system to collect fare data, process the numbers, and provide commuters useful information. If you key in two locations, the system looks up Google Maps and calculates the distance between them. It arrives at the official fare based on the fare chart. The driver may not take the same route, but this a good enough approximation.

What users actually pay on the ground is very different, of course. "Users can contribute these fares for various routes logging in via Twitter, Facebook or Gmail," says Mayur. Their input goes into a data base that computes the average fare. Now, with that number in hand, every user can hope to drive a decent bargain with any auto-driver in the city.

How is Meterpodu faring?

The new tool got good press. "A lot of people began polling the system to find out fares," says Anantha. "The fare formula the system uses is dated circa 2007, which is when the government last revised fares. So it will quote average fares that are a lot less than what is being demanded on the roads." The number can only lead to angst that the auto-drivers aren't plying according to the government-set fares, says Mayur.

Meterpodu enjoyed an initial wave of popularity. Nobody likes to be fleeced and the auto-driver is a convenient villain in a farce of a transport system. "We don't have anything against auto-drivers," Anantha hastens to clarify. "Most of them rent the rickshaws they drive and are forced to do what they do because their owners squeeze them."

The lull that came later is harder to explain. While Meterpodu costs commuters nothing, everyone stands to gain once it reaches its potential. Yet, few contribute fares. Usually, crowd-sourcing involves some form of gratification, but here the user gets no instant reward.

Still, is that the hold-up? "May be it is our mistake that we haven't stressed it enough, but the whole point is for folks to contribute fares to the system and build up a database of fares," says a bemused Anantha. So, right now, the system is missing a vital piece.

To make Meterpodu an effective tool, the first order of business would be to drive more fare contributions into the system. There are tweaks in the works. Currently, it is a smartphone application, but its creators plan to release an SMS-based version for non-smartphones users.

Thanks to technology, and individual initiative, we have a handy tool to set fair prices for routes all over the city. Collectively, we may be able to resolve an issue that had us haggling and hand-wringing in the past.

Keep Meterpodu ticking

  1. Go to It has a very straightforward interface.
  2. Look up fares for your destination.If the government fare comes up, it means no user has contributed a fare for that route yet. Otherwise, you get an average fare as well. And that is your bargaining chip.
  3. If you are a Facebook user or a Gmail user, Meterpodu lets you submit fares. The credentialing is necessary to prevent random submissions from people or bots.
  4. You can also query @meterpodu, or contribute to it, via your Twitter account.
  5. Meterpodu lets you look up fares for free. But if you never contribute fares, there may be precious little to draw from at some point.
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In this issue

Government offers hope again for Heritage Act
The least pedestrian-friendly Indian city: Chennai
When will we get all this power?
An exchange of letters
Perambur Railway Hospital - A remarkable journey to excellence
An Old Boy's advice
METERPODU – A work in progress
The economist as a Shakespearean scholar
A Chola temple near Tambaram

Our Regulars

Short 'N' Snappy
Our Readers Write
Quizzin' with Ram'nan
Dates for your diary


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