We all know what 2020 will be remembered for, but this could also be the year that we see a big leap forward for open data. It’s a challenge the industry should embrace.
There are various open data specifications currently in use around the world. In terms of physical file formats, JSON and XML are both widely used. Static data is often provided as CSV or KML files, which are then combined with the dynamic data formats. Many public transport providers have adopted GTFS (General Transit Feed Specification), which was developed by Google as a standard format for timetable information. Not least because it enables timetables to be easily integrated into Google Maps.
In the UK, the Bus Open Data Service (BODS) launched into Beta in February 2020, with the aim for it to become the online home of bus operator data in England as the year progressed.
Bus operators and local authorities are required to upload their routes and timetable information to this portal by the end of 2020. Live vehicle location data and ‘simple fares’ must be added by January 2021, and all fares must be included from January 2023.
It’s not yet clear whether the UK Government will move these timelines back as a result of the coronavirus crisis, but one thing is for certain – bus open data is coming!
An exciting prospect
Governments and local authorities seem genuinely excited by the potential for open data to demystify bus services. They believe that it will help increase bus usage – an objective that will be more important than ever as bus operators seek to rebuild their customer bases in the wake of Covid-19 lockdowns.
At CitySwift, we are big believers in the power of data, so we are also enthusiastic about this agenda. Passengers in every town and city should be able to access clear and consistent information about bus services from a number of different apps and websites. The world will be watching how the UK’s Bus Open Data Service develops with interest.
Back in 2016 when the UK Government revealed details of its forthcoming Buses Bill, there was surprise at the inclusion of a requirement that all operators make data about routes, fares and times open and accessible.
The Bill had been conceived in response to a promise by the Chancellor, George Osborne, to give Greater Manchester new bus franchising powers. But bus-specific legislation doesn’t come about very often and some bright spark saw the opportunity to unlock the potential of open data.
Speaking at a bus industry event last September, Transport Minister Baroness Vere thanked those bus operators that had already opened up their data.
“The more data we have available, the more people can use it and there’s all different sorts of apps who will be using it – which will be good for you because then people will use more buses,” she said. “So I will be on your case about making data available because I think it’s very, very important.”
“The more data we have available, the more people can use it and there’s all different sorts of apps who will be using it – which will be good for you because then people will use more buses.”
London led the way
Before the Buses Bill had been conceived, experience in London had already demonstrated what could be achieved by opening up data.
After overcoming its initial reservations about sharing its data, Transport for London became a world leader in open data. Thousands of applications have since been developed for its transport network. Other transport authorities around the world, such as Toronto in Canada, have followed TfL’s pioneering lead.
Speaking in 2014 when he was Transport for London’s Commissioner, Sir Peter Hendy explained: “We’ve learnt, I’ve learnt - I had to change my opinion - that keeping data to yourself to ensure its purity is a useless aspiration in a world of information technology.”
“We’ve learnt, I’ve learnt - I had to change my opinion - that keeping data to yourself to ensure its purity is a useless aspiration in a world of information technology.”
“What you should be doing is flinging it out freely as far as you can, allowing these people who are cleverer than we are ... to actually use it in ways that will work. The best ones survive and the rest of them fall by the wayside.”
He added: “This information isn’t something that should be husbanded for money, it’s stuff that should be available to customers and users to stimulate travel and sell tickets. The time is coming when all of this has to be seamless and all of this hopeless balkanisation will be regarded as both useless and futile.”
“It’s stuff that should be available to customers and users to stimulate travel and sell tickets. The time is coming when all of this has to be seamless and all of this hopeless balkanisation will be regarded as both useless and futile.”
Big benefits for buses
The time has now arrived, and bus operators across England can look forward to big benefits.
The most commonly cited reward for buses is that information about their services will be presented to a wider audience, potentially driving up bus use. How many people even know about the bus services on their doorstep, never mind those in a town or city they might visit? This is technology that unlocks customer confidence.
But other potential benefits could also be unlocked.
The Department for Transport has said that requiring bus companies to share their data will pave the way for improved information across all modes of transport, meaning quicker, easier journeys for passengers travelling by multiple modes.
It points out that transport data is already widely shared within the rail industry and across different transport modes in the biggest cities, with apps like Citymapper helping passengers make informed travel choices.
Improving the integration of transport modes can help enhance the attractiveness of public transport, by making the whole greater than the sun of the parts. It might also accelerate the development of ‘Mobility as a Service’ (MaaS) experiments in English cities. This could see transport services, including buses, packaged together in bundles and sold as a service, much like a mobile phone tariff or Netflix subscription.
Open data could also help fix the problem that bus operators most commonly cite as the greatest threat they face – the impact of traffic congestion on their services.
Speaking at last year's ALBUM Conference in Cardiff, Catriona Henderson, the Department for Transport’s head of buses and taxis, said: “I really understand why the bus industry is so concerned about congestion, but I think that is quite a difficult problem for my team to solve in central government.
“We can solve it by giving local authorities funding, but there is not a lot we can do to address the pinch-points on the ground ... [Automatic Vehicle Location] data is really going to be great in terms of helping to solve those problems.”
She added: “I am really interested about what you in the industry and others can do to help with making the most of this wealth of data when it comes, and really exploit it so that we can all learn a bit more about how we can make the industry even better.”
“I am really interested about what you in the industry and others can do to help with making the most of this wealth of data when it comes, and really exploit it so that we can all learn a bit more about how we can make the industry even better.”
Everyone’s a winner
We are interested too. As bus operators have emerged from lockdown, our bus data engine has helped some pioneering companies to revive their businesses and respond quickly to changing patterns to demand. It has also helped to provide highly sophisticated predictions on bus loadings, helping bus users to make informed choices about when they travel. We have played a part in giving passengers confidence in the way in which they travel.
Bus operators are saying that they plan to keep providing information on bus loadings to their passengers, even after the current crisis has averted. How long before we see this kind of information appear routinely in apps, alongside information on fares and live arrival times? The possibilities are endless.
Data is empowering bus operators, and it can empower bus passengers too. Everyone can be a winner.