Transport Operators and Open Data: The Tide Has Turned

Published May 6, 2013
Governments and transport operators around the world are taking a wide range of approaches when it comes to making their data available to third parties.

Smartphone-toting commuters are increasing pressure on data owners by demanding services that tell them the best way to get across town, when the next train is due, which bus line they need and how much a taxi home might cost. In response there’s been a rash of independent developers — and sometimes government transit operators in their own right — jumping into the fray with apps to fulfill the demand.

Early developers cut corners by scraping operator websites to get the data they needed, while some forward-thinking operators began to make their schedules and related data available online. As the market grew — and it has grown rapidly, especially over the last 12 months — many governments realised they needed a transport data policy.

For Rome2rio this is an interesting topic: our global transport database contains data from thousands of operators in every corner of the globe, so we’re keen to see the development of standards and the opening up of data to third parties. Given the amount of time we’ve been doing this and the number of entities we work with, we’re in a good position to form some views about where the market is headed.

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In the United States, where the maxim “Information wants to be free” is at least well known, if not always adhered to, cities have generally taken a very open approach, though sometimes not without missteps. In 2009 New York’s MTA sued the developer of an an iPhone app that included Metro-North train schedules. These charges were immediately met by criticism from both the legal community and the New York City Council. The MTA reversed their stance, adopted an open data policy, and gained plenty of fans in the process. Literally dozens of public transport apps are now available to New York commuters, and the city provides a good model for how a healthy ecosystem of third party developers and products can quickly grow around an open data policy.

The Governments of the UK, The Netherlands and Sweden recently opened up their data to third parties, adopting the GTFS and TransXchange formats. The open data push is inevitably spreading to the traditionally conservative rail operators. French rail operator SNCF, historically very protective of their data, are now opening their doors. While they still have some way to go we applaud their initiative and expect their move will be watched closely by other rail operators throughout Europe.

Back here in Australia we’ve seen most of the states open up their transport data, although we’re intrigued by the current stoush over the NSW Government’s approach on live bus and train data, which saw them conduct a competition for app developers and then reward the winners with full access to the live data feed. Our view is that open access should mean just that, not “open to people we like” or “open to people who win the competitions that we run.”

Still, public servants are doing the right thing when their initial approach is caution rather than cutting edge. It probably won’t take long for NSW to remove further barriers to access, and join other Australian governments who have done away with most restrictions in this area. Here in Melbourne the umbrella department for transport operators, PTV, seems to be doing all the right things with its plan for opening up rail, tram and bus data. After meeting with some of the people involved we are convinced both of their good intentions and the progress they’re making.

(We worry, though, that senior PTV bureaucrats and politicians might be unrealistic in their expectations on data integrity, and perhaps stalling some data releases that would be of immediate advantage to the developer community and commuters alike. Holding off on opening up a particular dataset until every piece of data is 100% right 100% of the time sounds like a reasonable directive, but if the rest of the web worked that way there wouldn’t be much out there. In transport terms, a timetable that’s 99% accurate is incredibly valuable, and for all the problems that 1% might cause, we think the utility outweighs the downsides.)

In summary, then, we are very bullish on the progress made in the last 12 months, and confident that it will only gain momentum from now on. Just yesterday we heard from a major European rail operator, keen to better the efforts of SNCF and DBahn, and looking for partners to help. Of course we  expect there will long be holdouts in some parts of the world, striving to “protect” their precious data from misuse or misinterpretation, oblivious to the benefits of free market activity. We doubt, though, that these laggards will survive for too long. The tide has turned, and there’s no turning it back.

Written by
Executive Chairman of Rome2rio
Rome2rio, based in Melbourne, Australia, is organising the world’s transport information. We offer a multi-modal, door-to-door travel search engine that returns itineraries for air, train, coach, ferry, mass transit and driving options to and from any location. Discover the possibilities at rome2rio.com