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Déjà vu and disappointment at the new Transport Data Strategy

Open Data and transport apps: an outdated strategy that will leave transport operators and passengers at a disadvantage while lining the pockets of third party app developers
April 3, 2023

The Transport Data Strategy from the Department for Transport was released last week to much fanfare. The digital strategy aims to foster greater innovation in the transport sector and deliver better services for passengers by unlocking more transport data. So far, so good. We believe that data has a big role to play in innovating a transport sector which still lags far behind the digital curve. But read beyond the intro and it starts to go awry. The DfT wants to open up access to previously siloed multimodal transport data to developers and tech firms to build more transport apps. These apps will, apparently, provide passengers with better services and an easier way of planning their use of public transport. It’s giving us an unwelcome sense of déjà vu. Open Data and transport apps. Apparently these are the solution the transport industry has been missing. They aren’t, and we should know – this is a drum we’ve been banging for quite some time.

“Greater use of data in transport”

We are a data publisher on the beta version of the Rail Data Marketplace (RDM), which was designed to make it easier for partners to work with the rail industry. So we fully agree that data is key and yes, it fosters innovation – you only have to look at other sectors, such as fintech, to see that data is the driving force behind customer insight, personalisation and unlocking new revenue streams. But data sharing must be done with the acknowledgement that it has real commercial value, and as such, should be treated in a controlled way which benefits both data publisher and data consumer.

There is a glaring issue with just merrily opening up transport data to third party ‘innovators’. They receive it gladly and then inevitably use it to create yet another closed loop proprietary transport app. This may allow THEM to talk directly to the passenger, sell some tickets or take commission on an Uber journey, but it entirely shuts off any hope of dialogue YOU may have with your own customers. This is a problem on many fronts, but for passengers it doesn’t make for the seamless journeys that the Transport Data strategy hopes to create. The data may now be open, but the communication between passenger, operator and transport company who owns the app remains hopelessly siloed.

The data may now be open, but the communication between passenger, operator and transport company who owns the app remains hopelessly siloed.

Let’s illustrate the problem in real-life. Oxford Circus tube station becomes overwhelmingly crowded, so TfL station staff rightly pull down the shutters temporarily, closing the station to new passengers until the rush dissipates. Citymapper, who use TfL open data in their journey planning services, can see tube trains are still running but aren’t aware of the station’s temporary closure so continue to send commuters that way. TfL have no means of communicating directly with these passengers to tell them to find another way, bar perhaps a mass broadcast on Twitter, so they are left milling around the closed station or, more likely, end up jumping in an Uber. Not a good solution for anyone.

So what’s the better alternative?Transport data should absolutely be more accessible and public/private sector collaboration is, without doubt, the way forward as the transport industry itself lacks the skillsets and expertise to properly exploit the opportunity that such data affords. We make our demand data openly available on the RDM in an approved way for other use cases that we don’t necessarily have the time or expertise to invest in ourselves, and because these use cases can add value to the data itself. But we ensure that these use cases and our own technology maintain the direct relationship between operator and passenger. That simply can’t be achieved by more apps from third party innovators whose parasitic commercial model of owning and monetising the travelling public sits in direct conflict with the government’s aim of supporting the sector. This obsession with all-or-nothing sharing of data is outdated.

“Improved access to digital apps to help plan, pay and access the transport system”

In the media release accompanying the new strategy, Transport for West Midlands has been quoted as saying that "a critical factor in achieving seamless journeys in the delivery of appropriate, accurate and timely information to passengers, from a provider they trust". We couldn’t agree more, but let’s say this loudly for the people at the back – the time for apps to do this is dead and buried. Apps need to be developed and maintained at huge cost. They need passengers to download them, register and share personal information. They drain battery and take up valuable storage space. They flood you with annoying unwanted push notifications and they unethically and intrusively track your location. There is nothing personal about an app – they are restricted by user interface, with no appreciation of the individual user experience. We could go on, but instead you can read more about the problem with transport apps here.

Yes, we need to make sure that passengers receive information tailored to their individual journeys. Be it personalised real-time disruption updates or relevant incentives to make a sustainable travel choice, they need to come through the messaging channels that consumers already use, directly from the transport operators that the consumers already trust. A two-way dialogue between transport user and operator is the truly innovative way to unlock benefits for all. Perhaps that Transport Data Strategy needs a few tweaks?