Idea Crowdsourcing at MARTA: Encouraging Innovation in the Public Sector

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The Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) is one of the largest transit agencies in the United States with around 4,500 employees. Its 48 miles of rail and 9,000 bus stops keep Atlanta moving, and since launching as combined transit service in 1979, MARTA has provided more than 5 billion trips for its customers.

MARTA logo

Customer-centric innovation is at the heart of everything that MARTA strives for. As part of that effort, in 2020 MARTA started to use Qmarkets’ idea management platform to gather ideas from both inside and outside the organization, in order to drive their public sector innovations. The ‘Your Ride, You Decide’ program crowdsourced ideas and feedback on designs for MARTA’s new fleet of rail cars from thousands of riders across the region. The first of MARTA’s 254 brand new rail cars, inspired by feedback from nearly 4k riders who cast a staggering 34k votes, is expected to make its first journey in 2025.

Lyle Harris, Senior Director of Customer and Employee Experience at MARTA

We caught up with Lyle Harris, who is tasked with running MARTA’s crowdsourcing initiatives. He tells us all about why the transit agency started to work with Qmarkets, the challenges they have faced as an organization, and the successes they have had so far using the platform.

Setting Off on an Idea Management Journey

Q: Hi Lyle, thanks for joining us. First of all it would be great to learn a bit about yourself and your role at MARTA.

LH: I’m the Senior Director of Customer and Employee Experience at MARTA, which is a fairly new role in a fairly new department. I’ve been here for about 3 years, working within the Department of Customer Experience and Strategy which looked at how we engage both our customers and employees.

I’m responsible for managing the Riders’ Advisory Council (RAC), managing a series of meetings with staff and the general manager. I also manage a program called MARTA HOPE which does outreach to unsheltered people who take refuge on the transit system, and another called the Transportation Assistance Program for the homeless where half price Breeze Cards (fare cards) are distributed  to people who need them through various non-profits.

Q: It would be interesting to hear about some of the wider challenges facing MARTA at the moment. Are there any regulatory difficulties, or disruptions to the industry?

LH: There aren’t any on the regulatory side. It’s mainly just a shortage of resources – we have too few people doing too many jobs! We just don’t have enough programmers, analysts or customer experience managers. Like other transit systems around the country, MARTA is also seeking to hire bus and rail operators, mechanics, police officers and other positions in wide variety of disciplines. We lost a lot of people during the pandemic and it’s been difficult for us to move some of these projects forward. Getting things through the pipeline is difficult, especially if it’s a capital project on the capital budget.

(A capital project is one which maintains physical assets and infrastructure, and must meet one of several requirements in order to be included in the capital budget. The project must represent either a new construction, expansion, replacement, renovation, or upkeep of a facility.)

Q: And what about your role in the projects involving Qmarkets?

LH: I’d heard about crowdsourcing several years previously and I thought it was a brilliant idea. I thought it would be good for us to find a way to get feedback from our customers and employees about how we can improve our transit system.

Back in 2020, I reached out to several different companies, but Qmarkets  allowed us to test out the software and the participants from the pilot loved it.

At that time, we were also starting something new in our department called the Riders’ Advisory Council. The RAC is a group of about 30 people, some of whom use the transit system a lot and some who rarely ride it. We were trying to get feedback from them on how we can make customer-friendly improvements, so we decided to use the Qmarkets product that we had just tested internally.

“One of the things that’s great about Qmarkets is that it’s given us access to all these ideas and lets folks know that we’re actively listening and interested in moving some of their innovations forward.”

Q: Was it a challenge for you to secure leadership buy-in when it came to acquiring the platform? Were there many people to convince?

LH: I had to convince a few people but our Chief of Staff recognized that we had gone pretty far down the design path for the rail cars without really considering what our customers were looking for and what kind of features they wanted. The minute she heard that we were using Qmarkets with the RAC and our internal capital projects group she loved the idea and we were off to the races.

It was really a no-brainer. We didn’t have anything else that gave us that kind of flexibility so it really wasn’t too hard to sell.

Q: How did the RAC members take to the platform?

LH: Some of them took to it like fish to water! Several people came up with dozens of ideas each over the course of the two years that they worked together. There was a group of 10 to 12 people who were really active and wouldn’t let a week go by without posting an idea. They really enjoyed the interaction of it.

Crowdsourcing Feedback from Thousands of Customers

Q: Could you tell us all about your idea management projects involving the public?

LH: Around the same period MARTA had signed a contract with a group called Stadler USA to build a new fleet of rail cars to replace our aging fleet. This is one of the biggest rail car procurements in the in the country right now at around $646 million. Most of our trains have been in service for decades and are reaching the end of their useful lives.

“Riders’ comments ranged from serious to playful, pragmatic to inventive, and from the cosmopolitan to the proudly Atlanta-centric.”

We had made some decisions that were more based on what was best for MARTA’s engineers and train operators, but we realized later that we hadn’t done a good job of ensuring the riders would love the new fleet or feel a sense of ownership about it. So we decided to use Qmarkets as a way to get feedback from our customers on some of the interior and exterior features that would impact them the most.

That led to me taking a deep dive with the Qmarkets team to figure out how we could apply the Qmarkets system which we had been using for the RAC and internal employees in the planning department; to find out how to use the tool in a more robust way to engage and get feedback from our larger transit community.

MARTA’s new rail car interior resulting from its ‘Your Ride, You Decide’ crowdsourcing program

We set up the platform and we created two campaigns. The first was a little complicated because we had eight different customer features like seating, hand handrails, baggage storage and lighting etc. that we wanted feedback on. We created a campaign called Your Ride, You Decide and we did some marketing on social media and our website, and we took out some billboards too. We invited people to come and use Qmarkets to give us some feedback on those eight features.

We also had surveyors carrying out in-person surveys at rail stations and bus loops using the same format we were running on the Qmarkets platform.

The campaign kicked off and even though people weren’t accustomed to using the platform we got a very good response. We had a lot of great feedback from people who really got involved and were exchanging ideas.

Q: Great! What about the second campaign?

LH: After that the next step was for us to get feedback on the exterior of the rail car; it’s colors and its general look and feel. That campaign was more streamlined as we only had four designs, and this time we got even more feedback. We posted those designs as part of the “Your Ride, You Decide” campaign and a lot of people got very excited. Some of them posted their own designs that they wanted us to use, and we got some kids involved from the local elementary school. It was just really gratifying to see so many people engaged, involved, and enthusiastic about making their ride more comfortable and attractive!

We’ve had great success with the platform. It’s done a lot for us and helped us to be a more responsive and more engaged public transit authority.

MARTA’s new rail car exterior resulting from its ‘Your Ride, You Decide’ crowdsourcing program

Engaging Users to Participate in Public Sector Innovation

Q: How did you communicate about the campaigns to your rail users?

LH: We posted on social media about it a couple times per week during the 30 days or so that the campaigns were open, and we shared it on our website. For the exterior campaign we also pushed out some text messages to our stakeholder database.

Q: When it comes to public sector innovation it can sometimes be difficult to get people involved. Was it challenging to engage customers and the RAC to use the platform?

LH: Aside from a few technical challenges, no. As a matter of fact, we had our first meeting with the new cohort of the RAC a few months ago. I teased them about our crowdsourcing platform called Qmarkets, and they have been bugging me about it ever since! They’re very eager and enthusiastic about getting the opportunity to submit their ideas.

At the moment we’re setting up the workflow in a way that is workable for everyone. Once an RAC member submits an idea it will go to a relevant subject matter expert. If, for example, there’s an idea about landscaping at one of our stations that will go to our facilities department who can then either respond or join a follow-on meeting to discuss the idea in more detail.

Q: Were they any winning ideas or individual users who were celebrated or recognized for their submissions?

LH: We haven’t used any gamification features so far although I think we’ll be using them in the next year or two when the rail car procurement gets closer to delivery. We’re thinking about doing some other campaigns using Qmarkets where people can win special prizes for ideas about how we can roll out the rail cars to the public. During the first campaigns though we just wanted to focus on getting them off the ground.

It’s also important to remember that Qmarkets allowed us to gain meaningful input from the public when people were still understandably concerned about the pandemic. It allowed us to gain insights with more input than we might have had otherwise. This allowed us to make incredible progress and, at the same time, gain useful input from our current riders and hopefully, our future riders.

Reflecting on MARTA’s Crowdsourcing Successes so far

Q:  What’s the best experience you’ve had with Qmarkets on a personal level?

LH: Our customer success manager Gilbert has been a saint! He’s just been extremely patient with us and he’s held our hands every step of the way. I’m a former reporter by trade, and I’m not the most technologically adept person at MARTA. The support team has been exemplary and the support we get from Gilbert is outstanding. He can’t ever leave, he’s stuck with us!

The Qmarkets platform is just very easy to use. It’s very customer friendly and required very little heavy lifting on my part. One of the things that’s great about Qmarkets is that it’s given us access to all these ideas and lets folks know that we’re actively listening and interested in moving some of their innovations forward.

Data from both of MARTA’s campaigns as part of its ‘Your Ride, You Decide’ program using Q-ideate

Q: To finish up could you share an example of an idea you received on the Qmarkets platform that you’ve been able to implement?….

LH: Well for the rail car campaign, we fed the ideas and data to the leadership and C-suite, so all of the submissions helped to shape the final decision-making process.

Outside of that, we were so far able to implement just one out of the 60-something ideas that the first RAC cohort shared with us, but that was a pretty substantial project. It’s a crosswalk outside one of our rail stations to make it easier for people to get back and forth safely from one side of the street to the other and access our station. We’re hoping to do the ribbon cutting sometime in 2023.

Q: Wow, that must be very satisfying. It’s great when you can see ideas come to life like that.  

LH: Yes, it’s been gratifying for the whole team. The crosswalk project was submitted by a RAC member who uses a wheelchair, and she was easily the most prolific of submitter of innovations and ideas. We had a ceremony at the end of the RAC’s two-year term, and we did an awards program where we took a picture of her and named her the “innovator of the year”. She’s our champion! That’s the sort of thing we want to do with Qmarkets: take something from an idea to an execution and then celebrate it. That’s what it’s all about for us.

One thing that really stands out from this interview is the extent to which MARTA builds its mission around its riders. Customer-centricity is the beating heart of innovation and from what we heard from Lyle, MARTA knows all about this.

Another key takeaway is that MARTA has succeeded in its crowdsourcing initiatives by building up its activity on the platform gradually. After trying it out with a small team internally, they then introduced it to their Riders’ Advisory Council before using it to gather feedback from thousands of members of the public. It highlights the fact that organizations don’t need to do everything at once. It can often make sense to start small, and test and learn on the way to success.

Lastly, it was really pleasing to hear that, despite some of the internal challenges MARTA faces, Lyle and his team aren’t resting on their laurels; they are already thinking about how they can get even more out the Q-ideate platform. The gamification and community engagement features that Lyle hopes to use in future campaigns are a really powerful way of driving high levels of participation in ideation and crowdsourcing campaigns. We can’t wait to find out what MARTA does next!

To discover how Qmarkets can help you drive public sector innovation through crowdsourcing at your organization, contact us for a free demo today.

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