“Cabbies and code: the making of Hailo” - Russell Hall and George Berkowski at Hacks/Hackers London

Martin Belam by Martin Belam, 30 March 2012
“Everyone really loves a black cab driver. I’m sure they do” - Russell Hall at Hacks/Hackers London

When I was at school, there was a boy in our class whose dad was a cab driver, and he got teased about it quite a bit because it was seen as quite a lowly trade in amongst kids whose dads were mostly bankers and accountants and lawyers. I remember telling my dad, and him saying to me that cabbies were often amongst the smartest of businessmen. I was reminded of this at Hacks/Hackers London meet-up, where the first talk of the evening was about black cab application Hailo.

Already some 3,500 of London’s 23,000+ cab drivers are using the app. The premise is quite simple, for the end user it takes the waiting out of hailing a cab. For the cabbie, it can drive extra revenue, and acts as a way to accept credit cards.

What was fascinating about the talk was that you immediately think of it as a consumer app, and cabbie Russell Hall showed a promo video aimed at the punters.

However, there was a reveal about halfway through the talk, where you realised that they had actually built an application for cab drivers, which also had a bit of use for consumers. In fact they claimed they had a thousand drivers signed up before any of the public used the service. It provides peer-to-peer traffic reports, a social network type feature allowing you to work out where you are going to meet some fellow cabbies for tea or a beer, and the ability to notify each other of “bursts” of business, like when the O2 empties out.

One of the features of the app is for customers to rate the ride they’ve just had - but drivers also get to rate their passengers. George Berkowski said they are willing to throw out the “bad eggs” in the system, whether they be grumpy cabbies, or difficult passengers. Ratings have been universally high on both sides. Russell threatened to hire Hyde Park in the summer for a “mass love-in”. The app is also highly rated by iTunes store users - with a five star average.

George Berkowski made a great point about the user experience of apps. “There is a big barrier to adoption of apps”, he said. “Why would I download and use your app unless you are giving me something of value?” He believes that an app needs to deliver value before you even think about trying to get someone to sign up to use it. Hailo does this by providing a user with a map of their current location, and the approximate waiting times for the nearest black cabs to arrive.

Hailo have a team of 45 working on the product, which was started by what Russell called “a meeting of great minds” - three cabbies and three businessmen. I must confess, spread across several projects as I usually am, that the idea of having 45 people dedicated to working on just one product sounds like a utopia - they even have four people dedicated to responding to every single customer contact. However, as one of the questions after the talk pointed out, 45 people is an awful lot of money to be burning through during the start-up phase of the business. George suggested that there were about twenty-five cities in the world where the model could be replicated, and they were bullish about the time it would take them to break even.

One question after the talk didn’t really get a great answer, when Kathryn Corrick asked about personal data issues. She suggested that for many women, getting into a car puts them into a potentially vulnerable position, and that Hailo additionally hands to the cab driver their personal details. Russell tried to deflect it by falling back on the argument that black cab drivers are licensed so safer, and George argued that they didn’t store that much personal data. He suggested they only kept first name, credit card details, and a mobile phone number. To be honest, I would have thought that those three pieces of information, plus having possibly dropped someone off outside their house, was about as much personal information as you needed to be able to track them down.

I’m not sure that Russell and George really understood the point that Kathryn was trying to make, that the app turns the act of getting a cab from a virtually anonymous action to one where the cabbie and person have shared personal details with each other. There are also potential security concerns around what happens to that information if a cabbie loses their smartphone, for example.

My Guardian colleague Alastair Jardine also wondered if Hailo risked being the first social network that defied Metcalfe’s law - was there a tipping point where having too many cabbies on the system actually made it less useful. Whilst only some cabbies have the tool, it gives them a business advantage. If everybody knows that the O2 has just chucked out this minute, the value is diminished.

It is clearly a slickly produced app though, and Russell and George were engaging speakers with a good sense of humour. When Joanna Geary asked whether the cabbies and the coders had argued over much during the build of the app, Russell simply replied “over everything”.

UPDATED 30/03/2012, 5:30pm: George Berkowski from Hailo contacted me about the issues of privacy and security raised in this blog post. He said:

“Hailo does not store any credit information from our users. We work with the highest grade security PCI-compliant partners who store our users/ credit card information on our behalf. There is zero credit card information about a Passenger stored on either their Hailo App, or the Driver Hailo App. Additionally, the Driver only has the First Name and Last Initial of the Passenger, and zero credit card information about the Passenger. In the case that either the Driver Phone is lost or stolen or the Passenger Phone is lost or stolen there is no way to get information a passenger from the Hailo app”

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Also on the bill at Hacks/Hackers London last week were pitches from Sunny Hundal and Adrian McShane, and a talk about analysing Twitter data from Paul Gesiak. I’ll have my notes from those next.

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