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James Koole Posts

Some Thoughts on PRESTO

If there’s one thing that Greater Toronto Area commuters have strong opinions on, it’s Presto.

Presto (or PRESTO as the marketers at Metrolinx like to yell), is an electronic fare card system that is being rolled out across 11 different Ontario transit agencies from Hamilton, through the Greater Toronto Area and Ottawa.

The goal of Presto is to create and run a unified fare payment system for Ontario commuters so that those using multiple transit agencies to get around will be able to use a single fare card system to make the trip.

TTC and Presto – together at last

The TTC wasn’t exactly excited about implementing Presto, but after years of dragging their feet on switching over, they’ve recently accelerated the pace of the roll out and now expect to have it complete by the end of 2016.

Since I’m a TTC rider only, and have happily relied on monthly Metropasses for the few years, Presto has been something I’ve spent little time researching.

But in late December, after a bit of consideration, I decided to take the plunge and switch away from using a monthly TTC Metropass in favour of Presto. My reasons were three-fold:

  1. We’re moving within walking distance of my work while we renovate our house so I don’t need a Metropass for the next three months.
  2. Based on my transit usage over a year period, I think I can save a fair bit of money using Presto and paying per ride vs. buying 12 monthly passes via the Metropass Discount Plan.
  3. I want to use and understand Presto now since the TTC is planning to phase out tickets, tokens and Metropasses in favour of Presto by the end of 2016.

First Impressions

Getting a card was fairly easy. I could have purchased one at a TTC subway station, some Gateway newstands or at Union Station, but instead I chose to order one via the Presto website and have it mailed to our house.

The card itself costs $6 and you need to pre-load it with some money. I put $25 on mine, so the total cost was $31.

When the card arrived, I went back to the Presto website and registered the card to my account. This allows you to track usage, protect the funds on the card if it’s lost or stolen, and it also allows you to setup autofund so I won’t find yourself without funds on your card.

The site advised me that I needed to use the card within 30 days to activate it, and that tapping the card on any Presto device would do just that.

Declined 🙁

My first try using Presto was a failure. I tapped the card on the Presto reader on a 504 King streetcar and was greeted with a “declined” message. I paid with a token instead and got in touch with Presto via Twitter for help.

They suggested I visit the Presto kiosk at King St. subway station to check the status of the card there. I stopped in and checked on the machine there which reported the card was registered, active and had $25 loaded.

Later that day, I logged into my Presto account to see if the card status was updated…it wasn’t.

That led me to do a bunch of research on how Presto works. That research helped me understand why there was a discrepancy between what the kiosk said, and what the website said. And it also helped me understand why my initial attempt to use Presto failed (more on that in a bit).

The next morning I logged in and my card was active (as I expected it would be). I try using Presto again on a 504 King streetcar to go to work and everything worked as designed. Within about 4 hours, the trip showed up in my Presto account online and the balance shown was accurate – $25.00 minus the $2.90 for my one TTC ride.

Lesson One: Patience!

First up, Presto cards use a proven technology used by many other fare card systems around the world, including London’s Oyster and Vancouver’s new Compass.

Like those other fare card systems, there are some quirks to get used to.

The one thing that trips a lot of users up initially is that everything takes a few hours to a day to actually happen, including adding funds to cards. The reason everything is delayed by hours (adding funds, showing trips taken, etc.) is that the card is where all the info is stored and the many Presto readers you tap aren’t connected to the Presto system at all times.

When you tap on a streetcar, the device and the card interact. There isn’t any communication with the Presto system at this point. Instead, the card keeps track of everything itself and updates the Presto device with its new information (funds balance, and trip info).

At some point periodically during the day, or overnight, the vehicle the Presto device is on connects to Presto. In some cases that overnight when it’s in the garage. It appears that TTC streetcars connect more often, perhaps using the cellular connection already in place for the Nextbus tracking system. When the readers connect, they uploads all the data to Presto. That updates the system with any trips registered so the remaining on the card can be determined.

The same delay would apply when you add funds to your card online, but in reverse. Once you add funds (or use autoload to add funds), the information needs to get to the card itself.

The Presto system sends all the updates to every single device (many, many thousands of them) when the devices ask for an update. Since devices on vehicles are only connected to Presto periodically, that data can’t filter out to every device immediately. It could take 24 hours or even longer to make it to every device on the system.

The next time you tap your card, the device and the card share data and the card learns that it has been loaded with more funds. In the case of some kiosks that have a persistent connection (apparently the ones at Union Station, for example), this can happen quickly as the funds can be added into the system, and then your card can immediately learn of its new balance via the built in reader in the kiosk.

In the case of a brand new card, once it’s registered, every device across the entire Presto system (province-wide) has to be told that the card exists to make it usable.

That data is sent to all Presto readers by the system as each device connects, and the user of the card then has 30 days to tap the card on a device to make it active. If a card is unactivated for more than 30 days, the Presto device drops the information because it can only store so much data and un-activated cards aren’t worth wasting space on.

If you attempt to use a new card where the Presto device hasn’t learned about your card yet, it’ll fail like mine did. Likely the reader on the streetcar I boarded hadn’t been updated in quite some time and I was just unlucky.

So why doesn’t Presto just work like my Starbucks card?

Unlike your Starbucks or Tim Horton’s card, Presto cards are smart. While a Starbucks card is literally just a barcode or magstripe and nothing else, the Presto card contains a small computer and secure memory that keeps track of how much money is on the card, along with other info like whether you are a student, or have a monthly pass.

Your Starbucks card number (not the card itself) is used by the Starbucks point of sale (POS) system to draw funds from your account.

Think of the combination of your Presto card and a Presto reader as being like the POS computer.

The Starbucks POS relies on a persistent connection between the POS system and the Starbucks card servers back at Starbucks HQ. If that connection between the POS and server is lost, you aren’t buying coffee.

A Starbucks card is literally just a plastic card with a number on it that does nothing and has no ability to store your balance or stars or even your name. Your Presto card on the other hand, does have all this info stored on the card, plus a computer system to process transactions.

Along with (eventually) millions of Presto cards, there are literally tens of thousands of Presto devices across Ontario in 11 different transit agencies stations and on thousands of vehicles. To have a persistent Internet connection for each device is unreasonable and would slow everything down immensly if Presto were to use non-smart cards.

Picture the boarding process if every transaction required communcation between the device and a main server somewhere over the Internet. Each tap could take 4-5 seconds like they do with your Starbucks card, and the delays would pile up.

Or imagine if you were boarding a bus and the bus lost its Internet connection for some reason. Instantly, there would be no way to pay for your ride and everything would grind to a halt. Now envision that potentially happening across thousands of vehicles in different locations across Ontario.

Even on a good day, when everything was working well, just maintaining a connection to each and every Presto device would be a challenge with moving buses, tunnels, underground stations, weather, etc., nevermind handling the tens of thousands of simultaneous transactions.

Instead, the Presto card itself smart and the device connects only periodically to exchange info between itself and the system, and to get information that needs to be provided to the card.

In this way, each device doesn’t need to be connected constantly, and there’s no reliance on a persistent connection to transact which improves reliability and speeds up individual fare taps to where it’s instantaneous.

Yes, there are a few downsides to that approach (the delays in transactions being posted and money being added being the most significant). The benefits of the approach used by Presto means it’s far less likely that riders will face a scenario where a Presto failure means they can’t tap to ride a vehicle.

Some other considerations

There has been a lot of discussion around Presto being a waste of money, or needlessly complex. Some have suggested that Metrolinx should have just bought an existing system and implemented that.

Those arguements fail to take into account the unique challenge that Metrolinx has in integrating multiple transit agencies under a single fare card system.

For example, while most existing fare systems need to work only with a single agency, in the case of Presto, it’s 11 agencies and each agency has different fare rules and pass types. For example, a single user might do a trip with a Presto card on Durham Transit with one set of rules, then a GO Train trip with zone-based fares, and the also a TTC trip with it’s own rules about transfers and things like student fares.

Presto also has to work across a very large geographic area stretching from Hamilton to Ottawa today, and even further in the future. That also means millions and millions of people using Presto daily.

Roll out challenges

While it’s taken quite some time to roll Presto out across all systems in Ontario, keep in mind that even rolling out to a single agency represents a huge undertaking.

The TTC in particular has multiple challenges including a large fleet of 250 streetcars (with 2-3 Presto readers per vehicle) and 1,200 buses (with 1-2 readers per vehicle). Add in subway stations (with asbestos and other issues) that need to be retrofitted with Internet access, kiosks and new fare gates to allow the Presto devices to connect underground, and you can see the scope of the work required.

With all that taken into account, I’m fairly pleased with how Presto works for me today. It’s a single card that I know I can use for the TTC, and for the occasional time I take a GO Train. There are a few gaps in the system now (lack of Presto devices on TTC buses and many subway stations), but nothing that I can’t workaround by carrying a backup token or two.

We’ll see how the rest of the city reacts over the next 12 months as Presto becomes the payment system for everyone.

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Resolve to Take Back the Web in 2016

It’s time to make a 2016 New Years resolution that is all about how you use the Internet.

Things are not good right now. The open Internet is under attack. Privacy is being eroded in the name of security. Governments are attacking encryption and using censorship to silence anyone who disagrees with them or tries to stop them.

Here are six things you can do right now to join the fight for an open Internet in 2016:

  1. Choose encrypted services over non-encrypted ones. Apple’s iMessage is better than SMS because only you and the recipient can see the message thanks to strong encryption. Non-iPhone users looking for a cross-platform alternative should look at Signal which offers fully encrypted messaging with open source, audited code. Tell your friends to join you in using secure, encrypted messaging services instead of Facebook Messenger, What’s App or other services.Remember that if the provider of your messaging service is targeting ads to you, they are able to read your messages. If they can read them, then they can provide the full history to those who ask for it. Apple, Signal and others can’t and won’t decrypt your messages. Ask yourself which service you should be using.
  2. DuckDuckGo is a fantastic search engine that doesn't track you.
    DuckDuckGo is a fantastic search engine that doesn’t track you.
  3. Switch your search engine. Google uses every single search you do to better figure out who you are (again, to target ads). Switch to DuckDuckGo and use a search engine that is not tracking everything you do on the Internet. The results are just as good as Google, minus all the tracking.
  4. Think about how much you share. It’s amazing how much you can learn about someone just by looking at their Facebook and Twitter feeds. Please, don’t stop sharing, but do think about how much you share and with whom you share it.Remember that regardless of your privacy settings, Facebook and other social networks have access to all of your data and are happily selling your profile to advertisers for huge money. Think of the social networks as your closest friend when you share, and then consider whether you really want them (and advertisers) to know you the same way your real closest friends do.
  5. Opt out of tracking. Use Ghostery on your web browser and install a content blocker like Purify on your iPhone. Despite what the media might try to tell you, ad blockers are not about blocking ads. It’s about blocking the tracking that comes along with ads. Don’t trade your personal information to advertisers and get an ad in return. Opt out of tracking and send advertisers and media companies the message that you are okay with ads, but not with the tracking that they’ve bundled along with them.
  6. A VPN app like VyprVPN secures your data as it travels around the web.
    A VPN app like VyprVPN secures your data as it travels around the web.
  7. Get a VPN. This is a simple to install and use app that creates a secure, encrypted tunnel over the Internet for your data. It prevents snooping of your data as it passes through the various servers and routers on its way from your computer to whatever service you are connecting to. I use VyprVPN (500MB free each month) but Cloak is another one I’ve tried and like (free 30-day trial). Both are available for your computer and smartphone.

Most importantly:

  1. Speak out in real life. Do more than just signing a petition or two. Get involved and be an actual, out-loud vocal proponent for privacy, encryption and an open Internet. Speak out against those who don’t share those values. Take a pass on services that aren’t private, secure and encrypted from the start and choose and use services that are. Tell your friends why you make that choice.You may not have anything you think is worth hiding, but consider that it’s quite possible to assemble a very detailed personal profile from your activity online. Imagine the value of that to an insurance company, new employer, or literally anyone looking to use some piece of information against you. It’s not just your chats or Internet history. It’s your health data, financial info contacts and more.

Join the fight, or risk losing the open Internet

This stuff is incredibly important and 2016 is shaping up to be a defining year in the fight against those who want to crush the open Internet in an effort to control it. Take a stand along with millions and millions of others. Don’t just change your avatar or post some links to Facebook.

Step up and do something real.

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I Just Don’t Understand Why We Wouldn’t…

The one thing me the product manager just loves to hear: “I don’t understand why we wouldn’t [blank].”

(Preface to this rant: Suggestions are always appreciated. Collaboration is essential to success. Don’t stop.)

Starting your suggestion with “I don’t understand why we…” is most definitely not the way to go.

When you say the words, “I don’t understand,” you may think you are admitting that you don’t have the whole story to why something is the way it is. Maybe you mean it to say that you haven’t really thought it through before making your suggestion. Maybe you are conceding that it’s more complicated than your simple solution might imply.

The way it comes across when you say, “I don’t understand,” is that your suggestion is the most obvious thing in the world. The implication of your words is that you’ve considered it carefully and can’t comprehend how I haven’t come to the same conclusion as you have. In other words, what you don’t understand is that I haven’t figured it out yet considering how readily apparent the solution is.

It’s difficult

Product management is really, really difficult and often very complicated. Fixing or building things usually takes way longer than anyone hopes or expects. Solutions to problems are tough to get right and often it takes multiple tries to get it even close to right. Unintended consequences are everywhere.

Sometimes you have to implement part of a solution now, and part of a solution later because 10% of the way to perfect is better than 0% of the way. Other times you have to accept that something that sucks will continue to suck for now because you can’t fix everything and it’s lower on the priority list than some other things that suck.

Suggestions about how to make things better are always welcome. But the suggestion that the solution is obvious isn’t going to get you very far.

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On Content Blockers

Understatement of the year: Ad blocking in the news these days.

The latest version of Apple’s mobile operating system, iOS 9, includes something Apple calls Content Blockers. It provides a way for developers to make apps that block ads, trackers and other unwanted content in the mobile version of Safari, the web-browser in iOS.

On the release of iOS 9, a number of ad-blocker apps hit the App Store and very quickly sides were taken.

Publishers who rely on ads to make money were very much opposed to the idea of users being able to block the ads they rely on to monetize their content.

App developers defended their apps, pointing to the demand from users as proof that users wanted out of the overbearing ads and privacy-invading trackers.

Users of ad-blockers told publishers to get a different model and get rid of the pop-ups and other annoyances that add massive weight to pages, and make it difficult and sometimes impossible to read content on mobile devices.

Content creators and publishers cried foul and suggested that ad-blockers would spell the end of the web and would mean the content would simply go away.

My take

I use Ghostery (ad and tracker blocker) on my browser. I use DuckDuckGo for search. I hate obtrusive web ads and enjoy reading content online. I consume podcasts, skip the ads and don’t feel regret.

My employer advertises online with display ads, and on podcasts. I block and skip through those very ads.

It’s a harsh view, but if the publishers can’t figure out a way to monetize their content without the use of numerous trackers, and obtrusive ads, then we have a problem.

Content creators deserve to be paid, and until now most of that money has come from ad revenue. Without the ads, there’s no revenue. Without the revenue, good content won’t exist because there’s less incentive to create it.

These content creators and publishers will cry foul and jump up and down and scream and yell. And for good reason – their livelihood is at stake.

And then they’ll pull out their phone and request an Uber, much to the chagrin of the cab driver who used to get paid to drive them home.

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Ignorance is Bliss

If something really upsets you and there’s nothing you can do to effect change, then ignore it. Seriously.

Refugees in Europe, gay marriage hating clerks in Kentucky, Donald Trump, Cecil the Lion. The list of things we’re supposed to get outraged about on social media is never-ending.

It’s making you sick

Here’s the thing. This stuff is making us sick. Sick with worry, sick with outrage, sick with concern.

But in most cases, there’s literally not a damn thing you can do about it.

The refugees will keep coming to Europe (and more will die trying), and it sucks and it’s terrible. That clerk in Kentucky will probably never get it and stupid politicians will raise her up like some sort of hero for Christians everywhere. Donald Trump might become President of the USA. And Cecil the Lion is dead and never coming back.

A simple choice

The choice you have is pretty simple. Continue to make yourself angry about things you can’t change, or filter out that crap from your life so you can focus on the things you can change.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t care about refugees, or equality, or politics, or animals. I’m saying focus your energies on the things around you that you can impact.

Can you change the plight of refugees trying to get to Europe? Probably not from where you sit right now. Tweeting about it, or sending an email to some government leader does nothing. So either get off your butt and go over there and actually do something, or expend your energy on something you can change.

Being outraged about something you are helpless to change is simply not good for you. If you can’t help but get outraged, then go step away from the news and from social media or filter that topic out.

You’ll be a happier person, and more able to effect change around you to really have an impact.

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