Back to school 2013 – A transformational time for Clever Commute


  • In August 2013, we added more features to Clever Commute than in any other month
    (with geo-location and message categorization topping the list)
  • Recent changes take us well-beyond our roots of “crowdsourced e-mail”
  • Admittedly, our communication about these changes could have been better…and for that I apologize
  • We hope we did not frustrate anyone…since our goal is to be your commuting partner for a long time to come

This post contains

  1. What is going on (context)
  2. Introducing The Inside Track – our premium solution
  3. A note on “send me my track number”
  4. An attempt to articulate the 472 recent features and fixes we added
  5. Summary (logistics, links, promotions, comments, feedback)

1. What is going on (context)

One of the more-visible recent changes was to the format of the e-mails containing user-generated content.
We moved the “payload” from the subject to the body of the mail. We also added keyword highlighting and other format changes…in order to make the prose both easier-to-find and easier-to-read. We are getting feedback from some commuters to revert to the old way. I totally understand that sentiment…but I need you to understand the rationale for this change. Please read on.

In 2006, Clever Commute started as 5 guys sharing Blackberry e-mails about problems on the smallest train line in NJ Transit’s portfolio. However, to accommodate this, I built a technical and cultural infrastructure which could “scale up” beyond the Montclair line….and it did. Over time, membership and message volume grew (a lot of you learned about CC from this NY Times article).

With that growth came an increase in costs: web hosting and monitoring, e-mail delivery, IT support and development, etc.

We asked for donations…and appreciate that small group who consistently give. However, it’s not enough.

We also incorporated a sponsorship model…and we enjoy some amazing relationships with top-tier advertisers. In order to attract and retain these clients, we need to ensure that their messages are being seen by the commuters.

Much of the feedback we heard this week was along these lines:  “now I need to open the mail in order to see the commuter alert”. Clever Commute has two reactions to this feedback
(1) the ability to see the entire message in the subject line was never universal. It depended on a few factors such as your smartphone and the layout of the original “alert” message
(2) if it is the case that the sponsor’s payload is only found in the body of an unopened e-mail….then we are not providing value to our underwriters.

So to be clear: the advertising model is a key driver to the e-mail format change. Now, when you open the “alert” message, you also see the sponsor’s ad. We think that’s a fair way to run a free system…and many of you agree.

2. Introducing The Inside Track – our premium solution.

8 years in, we created The Inside Track -a subscription-based, premium service. One of the dozens of features you get is the the legacy e-mail format (message-in-the-subject) . Maybe you feel strongly enough about this one capability that you’d subscribe to The Inside Track simply for that.  However, we think you deserve more…so please check out the matrix of everything we give you when you subscribe. The simplest way to think about our new approach is that the free service will eventually (only) include: e-mail based commuter-generated content from riders on your line. Virtually everything else we offer is being migrated to the premium service.

Therefore The Inside Track currently includes (a) “features you are familiar with” (get-away day advice, schedule changes, cross-line sharing, heads-up on events and issues which will impact your commute)
…as well as (b) some NEW remarkable enhancements (e.g., social/geo/technical features – more on this below).

Our premium service costs $3.99/month for NJ Transit riders and $2.99/month for LIRR/MNR (but we discount it if you go with an annual plan. You also get 30 days free).
But here is something to think about: you probably spend $3,000-4,000 a year (more?) on commuting. So it’s reasonable to pay “cup-of-coffee” money monthly for The Inside Track, which delivers value daily.

3. A note on “send me my track number” [now part of The Inside Track]

We totally understand that this feature needs to be fast in order to be useful. Not only must the e-mails be latency-free…but you also want text message-based delivery. And of course, these messages need to be in sync with all the schedule changes. For these reasons, this feature is now a component of  The Inside TrackYes…you can now get track numbers as text messages. You can also pause/resume when you travel or are on vacation.  A few quick notes for riders on each of the major services:

  • NJ Transit – you have been using and enjoying this new approach for months now
  • Metro North  – This week has demonstrated the challenge…and for that reason, we have decommissioned the legacy approach
  • LIRR – For now, your transit provider only supplies us with a datafeed for two lines: Port Washington and West Hempstead.  When they expand this program, we’ll be thrilled to support it more than just these 2 lines.

4. An attempt to articulate the 472+ recent features and fixes we put in

Our service is evolving so quickly that we are having trouble keeping our website up-to-date (by the way, did you notice that we totally overhauled our web site?). While this page is the best list of everything you get when you subscribe to The Inside Track. Here are is some hot news:

(a) Message Categorization

  • Our technology now reads each inbound e-mail message …and attempts to add a category based on the content
  • Alternatively, instead of submitting your alert via e-mail, you can now use The Inside Track‘s new “create-an-alert” interface  (web page)…and add a proper category yourself
  • Of course, now that messages have categories, you can opt-in/opt-out of the various categories to suite your preferences
    (yes…you can effectively tell Clever Commute: “do not send me messages about ______”)

(b) Geo Location – Yes! When alerts are created using The Inside Track, we now capture the physical location of the issue (based on the location of the user.) Opt-in, of course.
We are extremely energized by this development…and know that you will be thrilled to see the output (currently in beta).

(c) All of your alerts in one place [Beta for LIRR] – LIRR and Metro North riders no longer need to subscribe to e-mail based alerts from MTA. Rather, your membership in The Inside Track ensures that you will receive one consolidated stream of content (“official” alerts from LIRR/MNR…as well as user-generated info from your fellow commuters). As a result, you have one less thing to manage…with these benefits

  • The source of each message is clearly displayed (e.g., LIRR vs “commuter”), yet both have the same layout / look-and-feel (color-coding / enhanced formatting for readability)
  • You can filter both message types by category of the content (see above)
  • improved time-of-day and day-of-week control of your messages….with snooze and pause/restart

Special note for NJT riders: we are still evaluating the relative merits of doing this for you.

5. Summary (Logistics, links, promotions, comments, feedback)

  • If you have “track-record” of sharing quality info on Clever Commute (good feedback from your peers), then contact us for a free membership to The Inside Track
  • Similarly, if you are in career transition (e..g, unemployed) or in your first year of work, then contact us for a freebie as well
  • After Labor Day, we will be running a promotion in order to introduce people to The Inside Track
  • My inbox is always open for your feedback. The simplest way to reach out is via the Contact Us feature of the site.
  • More info about The Inside TrackLanding page, list of features, frequently-asked questions.