The way in which open-source data is used is fundamentally flawed, according to transport technology firm Zipabout’s technical director Daniel Chick. But get it right and the impact will be huge, he says.

Chick describes himself as a techie with a background in advertising technology who came into the transport industry assuming a base level of “joined-up thinking”. What he found was way behind the industry he had just left.

His company specialises in producing a common journey planner platform with a goal of helping transport operators understand and communicate directly with their customers.

Open source challenges

The challenges presented by open source data are not easy, he says. Fundamentally, Chick believes in making data freely available, but he believes that that comes at a price to the companies which supply it, if it is not managed correctly.

Static data such as MPs’ expenses or prison populations which are only updated periodically is useful because it allows people and institutions to be held accountable for their actions, he says. But when it comes to real-time traffic information, he believes that companies which release the data are missing a trick.

He believes that these organisations are losing the opportunity to get valuable feedback about the way users are interacting with their data by simply releasing the data with no control over how it is used.

By making the data open, they’ve disconnected to from the end user
Daniel Chick, Zipabout

Companies such as Network Rail and Transport for London publish their data for developers of travel planning and mapping apps to use, effectively outsourcing the development of journey planner apps. In doing this, these transport organisations are losing the ability to tailor the information they put out to their customers to meet the needs of individuals. This might include service updates or information about an unexpected station closure.

“By making the data open they’ve disconnected from the end user and they’re reliant on a third party to distribute the information for them,” says Chick.

“It’s saved a lot of money as the front end of the data development is an expensive business, but it’s a false economy because you end up not having any control of that distribution of information.”

Twitter communication

To try and rectify this, companies often use Twitter to communicate with their customers when changes are made, but Chick says this is not even close to the personalised interaction it could be. Coupled with this is the issue of broadcasting to the entire public your regular “problems with the service” – a public relations disaster.

Chick says that one way to resolve the situation could be to change the system, moving away from an open data “push’” system where companies put out information for others to do with it what they want. Rather, there should be a two-way movement of data.

“Part of the deal with the provider sending out data to the app developer is to give back information about the user and aggregated data about the way people are interacting with the service,” he says.

He says that by doing this the provider can then understand things like patterns of demand for certain types of information. This leads to the concept of using metadata, the data that provides information about other data.

Daniel chick zipabout cropped

Chick: Tailoring information output
“Actually there’s a lot of information to be gained from the metadata that is coming out of all of these fragmented services,” says Chick.

“It’s a huge opportunity because it will increase the efficiency of the [transport] network. Instead of buying new carriages, building new railways or putting new bus routes in, we can start to look at changing people’s behaviours to smooth the peaks in the travel.”

Chick says that terabytes of data are produced by companies but it is not being used to feedback into the system to improve it, or as it is sometimes known: “complete the feedback loop”.

Understanding customers

“From the operator’s point of view it helps them understand how their customers are interacting with them – a rail operator only knows how they’re interacting with them [customers] on their part of the journey,” he says. “But by understanding how I get to the station, what I do at the other end, whether I’m travelling with children – it allows them to offer a better operational service as well.

“From a local authority point of view, by having a better aggregated view of how people move around, policy makers can start to look at the wider implications of where to build more stations, railways or housing developments.

“The data is all out there and it’s all being generated, it’s just siloed and inaccessible at the moment.”

Vital feedback

For example, Chick says TfL is missing out on vital feedback which could be gained from knowing how its passengers are influenced by the order in which information is presented to them in a journey planner. Knowing this would allow it to be cleverer about how it routes people and could avoid overcrowding situations.

Zipabout is putting its money where its mouth is and at the end of the year it will roll out its integrated platform in Oxford. It uses open source data to produce the new apps and front end websites, but the information about how the customer is integrating with the service is being fed back to the stakeholders to allow them to improve their systems.

“We’ve got a pilot launching in Oxfordshire where we’re working with all of the transport operators – a consortium of Oxford County Council, Great Western Railway, Chilton Railways, Oxford Bus Company and a number of local business parks,” he says. ”We’re building some apps and a website as a test of our platform to personalise the delivery of information to start to influence people’s behaviour.

Influencing behaviour

“For example we’re working with the bus operator to, say, give away free bus tickets to encourage people not to drive into Oxford or go to the park and ride and then take the bus. It’s a lot of “push information” making suggestions rather than people going in and planning journeys based on the data that we’re collecting.

“It’s all aligned on behalf of the operators. Instead of being like Citymapper making money out of advertising, we’re working on behalf of the stakeholders to deliver a better service to the end user.”

Chick says that mapping the data to where the passenger is going, not where the train is going creates a far more personalised experience. By analysing weather, event and operating conditions people can be diverted to other routes which are less busy or less affected by external conditions. It also allows for multi-modal interchange, for example a journey planner which can incorporate driving or cycling for part of the journey before getting on a train.

Despite the fact that the transport sector is starting on the back foot, he remains positive.

Originally published in New Civil Engineer Magazine on 10th October 2016

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