The East Baton Rouge Parish school system plans to install GPS tracking devices on its fleet of 575 buses, providing real-time information about where those buses are at any moment and what they are doing.

The bulk of those devices are scheduled to be installed over Christmas break with the rest during the spring semester. And sometime in the spring, once it’s been operating awhile, parents are to have access to some of this data via a smartphone app called WheresTheBus.

“This information without a doubt will help us to be much more efficient,” Gary Reese, chief of student support services, a job that includes overseeing transportation, told the School Board on Thursday.

The board gave Reese preliminary approval to move forward. The board is expected to grant him final approval when it meet again this coming Thursday.

East Baton Rouge school board weighs app for parents to track their kids on buses

With the help of an in-house evaluation committee, Reese has selected Cleveland-based TripSpark Technologies as the provider of this technology. TripSpark, a division of Trapeze Inc., was one of five companies that submitted proposals.

Once the board says yes, Reese said, he plans to begin price negotiations with TripSpark. He said he’s not sure what the final the price tag will be, but said it will be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. He said it depends on the negotiations, but also how extensive a package he ultimately opts for.

GPS tracking of school buses has been around for years, but the software and hardware that make use of that information has continued to evolve. Reese said he’s debated the idea of adding GPS tracking to buses for awhile.

Reese said he likes TripSpark products, noting that the school system has long used its MapNet routing software. Reese recalls attending a TripSpark conference a few years ago where he saw an earlier, less stable version of the company's bus tracking technology.

“I told them I’m not planning to put that on (my buses) until you work all the bugs out,” he said.

For the past month, Reese has been testing TripSpark’s GPS bus tracking software on 15 of the district's buses and said it’s already come in handy.

“If a parent calls and says her (child's) bus didn’t come today, I can look at that stop and say, Yes ma’am. Not only was (the bus driver) there, she was there at 6:38 a.m. and she was there for 48 seconds,” Reese said. “So that tells me your child was not there.”

On the flip side, the technology will also allow the Transportation Department to identify when it’s the driver who is in error, whether it’s speeding or running stop signs, but Reese says that’s not the primary purpose of installing the technology.

“I am telling drivers, ‘I’m not trying to catch you doing something wrong, I’m trying to catch you doing something right.’”

The information also should prove useful in making bus routes more efficient. For instance, Reese said the devices will alert him when stops are taking too long or, conversely, the stops where no students are getting on board. In the latter case, typically when a parent is opting to drive their kid to school, the school system can drop the stop and thus speed up the route.

In addition to the GPS devices, Reese plans on installing TripSmart tablet computers on each bus, though at a slower pace. First to get tablets will be “trail buses,” buses that don’t have assigned routes, but step in when other buses break down. These buses constantly have new routes to run. The tablets will allow the Transportation Department to transmit new routes to drivers automatically, a big improvement on what happens now, Reese said.

“We won’t have to print the route summary out and fax it over to the school to give to the bus or have the bus driver come by here and get it,” he said. “We’ll just send it straight to the bus.”

The tablets will also give drivers audio and visual turn-by-turn directions of their routes, though the video screens display when the bus is stopped.

“When the bus goes in motion (the tablet) goes dark, so you’re not trying to look at it and drive,” Reese explained.

But before buses can get tablets, they will need working locks, which will require retrofitting most of the school system’s fleet. Reese initially proposed putting the tablets on unlocked buses, arguing they’re installed in such a way that makes them very hard to steal. Superintendent Warren Drake and board member Vereta Lee, however, expressed concern that putting computers on unlocked buses would be an invitation for theft.

Reese said he’s still figuring the best way to retrofit buses. He said drivers like the idea because some buses get vandalized now.

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Joe Winkler, a TripSpark representative, on Thursday walked the School Board through his company’s products.

“The goal is to get everyone using real-time data to make better decisions,” Winkler explained.

In a demonstration of the WheresTheBus app, available on both iPhone and Android devices, Winkler showed a bus approaching a stop. The app displayed both the distance to the stop as well as the time it was expected to take.

“It is accurate to within a traffic light,” WInkler said.

TripSpark also sells a student ID tracking system where student ID badges have bar codes that are scanned as students board and exit the bus. Reese initially proposed purchasing these, but he said drivers and parents have raised with him an array of student privacy concerns about whether the devices properly identify students and whether only the appropriate people have access to that information.

Winkler said TripSpark has worked through those concerns in other districts.

“There’s a lot of different ways of validating the student or the user, and we’ll work with you to do the right validation,” he told the board.

Follow Charles Lussier on Twitter, @Charles_Lussier.