April 22, 2019 | 59° F

U. alumnus develops RU Maps, NJ Rails app

Photo by Photo Illustration by Dennis Zuraw |

A train traveler uses NJ Rails at the New Brunswick train station. It lets users receive notifications for their train line and departure.

While working as a full-time database engineer in Pennsylvania, Mark Novak spent his nights and weekends teaching himself mobile app development for iOS.

Novak, a Rutgers alumnus, with a degree in computer science, developed RU Maps and founded Smart’s Apps LLC. He was inspired to build RU Maps after witnessing far too many new students trying to painfully navigate the various University campuses and buses.

RU Maps is feature-rich, enabling users to visualize every single building and parking lot on the New Brunswick-Piscataway, Newark and Camden campuses. Another tap of the finger navigates users to any building or displays all of the allowed permits in a given parking lot.

“Instead of students having to ask strangers for directions constantly, I figured I’d make a mobile app,” Novak said.

The app shows real-time bus locations and schedules for weekdays, weekends and football games.

“When I first released the app, it just included a map with pins for every building,” Novak said. “But I kept adding features and now the app can pretty much be any student’s travel companion.”

Usage of the app has steadily increased as more and more students have discovered it, he said.

After he posted fliers at various bus stops during the 2013 fall semester, Novak said the app received 2,000 downloads, bringing the total to more than 5,000.

The app contains an advertising ribbon on the bottom of the screen, but Novak claims that it is a convenient analytics system to measure user behavior rather than a revenue generator.

“I don’t really make money from the app — maybe a dollar per week from ads,” Novak said. “I also chose not to charge for the app because I’m not doing this for the money.”

Novak had other intentions for developing the app.

“When you’re doing database work, there isn’t really an opportunity to show off your work,” Novak said. “I decided to build apps to have a portfolio that displayed my abilities.”

Developing RU Maps paid off, Novak said, because it landed him a position as an app developer at Cloud Sherpas.

Novak didn’t stop there.

He also released NJ Rails, which is perhaps the most comprehensive app for New Jersey Transit rail commuters.

“The Embark apps are pretty much the top of the line when it comes to commuter apps in major cities,” Novak said. “They were bought by Apple because of their popularity — so I’ve tried to improve on them everywhere I could.”

He said what separates the NJ Rails app from the Embark apps is that it shows live train departures from every station,” Novak said.

New Jersey Transit lets developers apply for their live train schedule data, but he said it is very difficult to get approved and a hold of the data.

Instead, Novak built a server that scans New Jersey Transit’s website and pulls the live schedule data from there.

In addition to real-time schedules, Novak’s app lets users save favorite commutes, opt for push notifications for live updates of their specific train line and scheduled departure. They are also able to see the color-coded “Vision Screen” that is otherwise only visible to commuters physically at Penn Station.

“The app basically lets you be at Penn Station even when you’re not,” Novak said. “It’s great if you’re running behind.”

The app has more than 14,000 downloads, Novak said, and has received 40 ratings in the app store for an average of four and a half stars.

“Sure I’m not getting paid to build these apps,” Novak said. “But it feels good to build something that you get to see people use and enjoy.”

Novak is secretive about his plans for future apps.

“My next project isn’t related to travel or to Rutgers,” Novak said. “All I’ll say is that it’s an app that anyone can use to record data from the real world quite easily. A very simple concept makes this a big idea.”

By Nis Frome

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