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In 2020, Alex Barnes, 33, was busy designing an app.
After studying for a DPhil, the equivalent of a PhD, in international development at the University of Oxford, he wanted to create something that would help people navigate safely around areas where violent incidents might occur. He’d previously been deployed to Afghanistan as a strategic analyst for the Australian Department of Defence, but during his studies his research turned to conflict zones and business actor behavior during Colombia’s civil conflict. Having worked in high-risk areas, he’d seen firsthand how valuable technology could be.
The software he created, which could provide real-time security alerts using crowdsourced data, was ready for rollout, and Barnes had plans to travel to Colombia, a country where conflict between the government, crime syndicates, and paramilitary groups has caused it to be ranked one of the world’s most violent countries, in preparation to launch. The app would help NGOs, charities, businesses, and other interested individuals plan the safest routes and ways to conduct their work in dangerous territories.
“We were working on developing the app, conducting interviews, prototyping, and data modeling,” Barnes told Insider. “But when COVID hit, we realized that we couldn’t deliver our product under our current plans.”
When Colombia was placed under lockdown in March, international travel became impossible and he was unable to get in touch with his key customers — people living and working in unsafe areas.
Like many entrepreneurs, Barnes found himself putting everything on hold — until he realized that all of his research could potentially be put to good use as people adapted to the “new normal.”
“It was a frustrating and uncertain time,” he said. “But then our chief technology officer Sebastian Mueller came up with a new idea, purely from thinking about the current situation and how we could reapply our expertise and skills. He developed a prototype within 24 hours, and we had a working app within a week.”
The prototype that Barnes, Mueller, and geographic information systems specialist Yohan Iddawela came up with was Crowdless, an app that uses real-time data to show how busy stores are and help users practice social distancing by visiting at the quietest times.
The previous iteration had taught them the need to act quickly as a startup, and so they launched within weeks. Crowdless was an immediate hit, and the app was downloaded more than 100,000 times in the first three months, according to Barnes. Although usage dropped off slightly once lockdowns began to ease, Barnes reported that there’s a strong core of users who continue to rely on Crowdless for updates on a daily basis.
Users of the app are also invited to become community ambassadors — volunteers who help to publicize the app, verify the accuracy of data in their local area, and suggest improvements. As a new social enterprise, the expertise of volunteers has been key in fine-tuning the app.
“We had invested huge amounts of time in the original roadmap, so it was hard to walk away from, but absolutely the right decision,” Barnes said. “The most amazing and touching part has been the way that users and others took it upon themselves to promote the app and be part of the development process — they would give us usability feedback and help us to translate the app into new languages. Some great people also volunteered their domain expertise, and this was a huge part of Crowdless’ success.”
How it works
When users log in to Crowdless, they’re greeted with a map of their local area. Stores are color-coded to indicate how busy they are, with a green rating meaning that they’re at less than 35% capacity and a red rating indicating a crowded score of 70%. The app uses a combination of crowdsourced data and information from existing sources such as Google Maps and Google Places, and users can also report their current location as being particularly crowded or quiet.
The app is cautious about privacy, Barnes said, with location information collected only on an opt-in basis and all data being fully anonymized. But privacy was just one of many user concerns that Barnes had to consider when rolling out.
“We needed to understand how to communicate the useful information to people in an intuitive way,” he said. “So there was quite a learning curve in terms of ensuring that the app met people’s needs effectively.”
In early tests, users didn’t realize that they could report how busy a store was, so the team took feedback and reconfigured the design, placing a prominent button on the homescreen. After handling numerous requests, they also implemented an “add a store” feature, which automated and streamlined the process of including any popular spots that the app hadn’t yet captured.
Barnes and his team decided early on that it would be important to keep Crowdless free in order to maximize its social impact, and they were able to build and maintain the app after receiving grants from the Oxford Foundry Rapid Solutions Builder, which finds and scales solutions to challenges that have arisen as a result of the pandemic, and Innovate UK, a government investment agency aimed at driving technological advancement.
Crowdless is available globally, but so far has seen the most users in the UK, Germany, and Spain — countries that have experienced particularly strict lockdown measures. The app taps into a relatively sparse market, with only a few competitors. Although the Popular Times tool on Google Maps is a long-standing crowd traffic feature, newer innovations have seen less usage than Crowdless. LineScouts, a Slovenian-based site which provides a busyness score, also launched at the start of the pandemic, but is currently only accessible via web browser.
Like many business owners who’ve pivoted during COVID-19, Barnes and his team have been pushed by the surprising success of Crowdless to consider potential future uses for the app. The true test of their product may come once life readjusts back to something resembling normality.
Barnes believes that even as lockdown measures lift people will remain interested in knowing how busy places that they plan to visit are. The Crowdless team also founded Lanterne AI last year, a social-impact startup that aims to provide dynamic data to help on-demand transport services predict user demand, and they hope that the lessons that they’ve learned could be key as they expand their business and monetize the software in future applications.
“Once lockdowns lift, we’ll be looking at what users are interested in and thinking about our next steps,” Barnes said. “We have expertise in geospatial analytics, data science, and machine learning, and so the modeling that we built for Crowdless was a tremendous learning experience for us. We’ll be taking the lessons that we learned from building Crowdless to inform other enterprise products, which we currently have in development.”
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