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Data and travel

No matter how you travel, you're probably creating data.

You're probably using data too. Often that's the same data that you, and people like you, created: your satnav will route you around traffic, based on road conditions reported by drivers ahead of you; your smartphone can recommend public transport journeys, in Google Maps, Windows Maps, City Mapper, and many more, because that data is made open; you can see if your bus or train is delayed thanks to real time information; you can even buy discounted tickets for immediate travel on some trains based on how full they are; you can pick which shops, cafés, pubs, and restaurants to go to based on real-time estimates of how busy they are.

And behind the scenes there's a lot of important things going on with data that are nearly invisible. Traveline collect all the public transport timetables in the UK and make it available as open data in a standard format called TransXChange. We publish an open source converter to Google's format GTFS and there are other projects too. Transport API pull together lots of sources of transport information and makes it available in a single place.

There's still a lot we don't know, and it's holding us back from improving our transport in the way we want. For example:

  • Google and TomTom's congestion estimates aren't open data. That means that we can't access them easily, or reuse them to build tools.
  • Highways England's congestion data is good for motorways and large roads, but we know almost nothing about congestion and traffic in our cities.
  • Bus usage data is commercially sensitive and only aggregates of limited value ever get released. We don't know who's using which buses to go where. This makes planning better bus services almost impossible.
  • Train usage data is commercially sensitive and, although the aggregates that are available are better than for buses, poor data is still a block to good planning in our region and our cities.

All of which means that we're in a very tough situation. There's a lot of evidence that poor transport is holding back the UK's cities. Anyone who lives in Leeds knows that congestion at peak time can be awful. Buses are frequently delayed by up to 30 minutes. Trains are often too full to get on. Cycling and walking feels dangerous. Jobs are further from home than they once were.

At ODILeeds we've been trying out a few things to improve the data we have about travel in Leeds:

  • Our MiniCarCounter proves that we can count traffic and produce open data cheaply using old mobile phones.
  • Our BusTracker proves that we can collect data on bus delays to make the case for investment in improved services.
  • Our OpenAudience tool lets people who run events or employers understand where their audience, customers, and workforce come from so that they can reduce the need for travel.

We need to do much more.

That's why on the 20th of July we're working with Transport for the North to host TravelHack at ODILeeds. We want to hear what extra data people want, what data people have to share, and most importantly what people want changing to make travel better in the North.

TravelHack illustration
#TravelHack. Image by Amy Evans