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#TravelHack part 1 - creating a data strategy for a new transport system

Transport for the North's ambition - to create an integrated smart travel system across the whole of the North of England - is a huge challenge.

In their words - "Transport for the North is making the case for pan-Northern strategic transport improvements, which are needed to support transformational economic growth".

It will need strong foundations & infrastructure in order to create the innovative services and products that will make this ambition a reality. TfN have shown an amazing enthusiasm for embracing an 'open' approach to their flagship project - they want to encourage, engage, and nurture the open data community in transport solutions for years to come. And judging from the incredible turnout for #TravelHack, the open data and transport communities want the same thing.

There were lots of familiar faces and lots of new faces, the room humming with conversation between colleagues and strangers alike. Not one to hang-about, Paul Connell - founder of ODI Leeds - set to work getting people to look beyond their normal boundaries. In other words, it was time for an ice-breaker and a chair shuffle. It is one of the unwritten rules of ODI Leeds events - you are not allowed to sit with people you work with. The second unwritten rule is that you have to talk about yourself and what you want to get out of the event. Simple, right?

After a generous 15 mins of this to let people get to know each other, it was time for the lightning talks. To properly frame the day for everyone in attendance, Richard Mason from TfN began with an introduction to who/what TfN is and want they want to achieve, both in the short-term and long-term. TfN was first established in 2015 with the aim of bringing together the transport authorities from across the North to create a comprehensive transport strategy that included roads, rail, freight, and smart ticketing. The emphasis was always on improved connectivity which would improve the economy, open up jobs for people, etc. The focus for #TravelHack was 'integrated smart travel,' one of TfN's core programmes and their flagship project. Richard described IST as being far more tangible and instant than the other programmes, with benefits that could start making people's lives better now. Richard then showed their 'proposition on a single page' (which can be seen in the slides below). The customer is at the heart of 'Oyster for the North' - offering a journey planner with fares from the start, information about real-time disruptions, a range of purchase and payment options, and post-journey customer care and engagement. Richard reinforced TfN's commitment to working with data publishers and users and was eager to see the outcomes from the day, this being the first time TfN had ever organised or participated in a 'hackathon' style event.
View Richard's slides here

To kick off the lightning talks in style, Tom Forth - challenge team leader for ODI Leeds - and Jamie Fawcett from ODI HQ shared the stage to talk about 'travel data.' Tom spoke first, talking about this recently published blog post, where he demonstrated how we all produce or consume travel data in one way or another. Even a lift (yes, a lift) can generate data! This data, if published openly, can go on to create very useful and interesting projects. He highlighted a personal project of his that he began 2 years ago. Using bus route and bus stop data (published openly by Traveline and used by many of the journey planners), and data about where people lived/worked, he could plot how well connected a particular bus route was. There was, however, one major thing missing - passenger data. Did any of these people living on these bus routes actually use the bus? That is what he wanted to get from #TravelHack.

Following swiftly was Jamie, who had a brief introduction to open data. He began with the phrase 'data is not oil!' It is not finite and it does not get used up after someone has made something with it. Instead, he prefers 'data is infrastructure' - it is a foundation that other people can build infinitely on. He believes that using open data will be the only way to connect all the disparate silos of transport data, and he cited some interesting comments from a previous transport project he had worked on through ODI HQ. He said they are still cultural barriers to using open data, and that even in situations where people work together openly, commercial interests could be misaligned. All the more important that things get defined in the early stages of a big project.

Appropriately, Andy Nash of Becotix was next, who had a solution that could have supplied the vital passenger data that Tom had mentioned in his talk. Becotix is a bluetooth beacon system currently in a trial phase on a single bus route, running from Keighley to Bradford. It is a collaboration between WYCA, Transdev, and Becotix. They wanted to find out firstly if a bluetooth beacon system would even work, and secondly, how it could help customers with their journeys. They asked customers what would put them off using public transport. The three obstacles they identified were;

  • not having the correct change
  • not knowing what ticket to buy, especially if they weren't sure they'd use a bus to get home
  • trying to describe where they needed to stop on an unfamiliar route

Becotix offers a solution to all of those. No need to fumble in your pockets or purse as the fare is calculated and deducted on the app. The app tracks your journey using bluetooth, so it knows exactly how far you've travelled and charges the appropriate fare, with a maximum cap at the same cost as a 'dayrider' style ticket. And the app will notify you when you're approaching your stop. The service has been very popular, with both customers and the service operator, and it generates from very interesting data, such as most popular bus stops on the route and average wait times.
View Andy's slides here

Up next was Chris Barnes from Highways England. He gave a brief introduction to who they were (formerly Highways Agency) and what they covered - 3% of road space that carries upto one third of ALL traffic in England, and two thirds of all freight traffic. He described the situation with data being that they helped people get between the big cities but then didn't know much about what happens after that. The data they do have is impressive. Access to thousands of CCTV cameras, hundreds of weather stations, and more, there is a wealth of data that could help inform journey planning. Chris was very enthusiastic for a collaboration with journey planning services, and how that could better inform their own planned works and projects. In terms of multi-modal transport, he suggested that Highways England data could be used to inform service users of days where public transport will be a better journey, or perhaps encouraging road users to ditch the car for the 'last mile' of their journey and use public transport.
View Chris' slides here

As fate would have it, the next speaker works on a journey planning software solution for public transport! Paul Everson from Trapeze was here to talk about data formats. A lot of journey planners all look the same and essentially all function the same (with some variation in the bells and whistles). The data that sits beneath the service comes in a variety of formats, some of them unique to some operators (for their own journey-planner-plus-smart-ticket app). Paul also had a very good point when it comes data that is omitted - very few journey planners ever take journey reliability, vehicle frequency, or even vehicle occupancy, in to account. What's the point checking your bus times if the next bus is full?
View Paul's slides here

The next speaker was here to show us how a multi-modal system could, be done with open data - because he'd already helped create one! Carl Rodrigues from OpenDataSoft was here to talk about open data in the transport landscape. Transfermuga is a project spanning a 60km stretch of France, Spain, and the Basque Country in between. Various forms of transport are available - bus, road, rail, airports, trams, etc - but most people use their car. Why? Because of various barriers, such as language, different operators/fares, and a system that isn't easily joined up. Currently working towards a full release of the multi-modal system by the end of 2017, OpenDataSoft are working to help join up national data with local data and encourage growth of transport solutions. Carl then moved on to SNCF to talk about one of the most open publishers of transport data. After an incident caused fatalities, SNCF were keen to rebuild trust with the public, so they committed to releasing more data about their trains, stations, fares, etc. A dataset showing incidents actually revealed that a tiny portion of all incidents were serious. In a practical example, Carl demonstrated the real-time lost/found dataset that used search keywords to try to reunite passengers with their lost property. The last thing he showed was the OpenDataSoft platform in action for Star transport and Rennes, where buses could be tracked live or you could create a layered map of open datasets such as bike sensors and cycle lanes. Like all impassioned open data people, he made the case for opening your data.
View Carl's slides here

To close the lightning talks, Julie Williams from Traveline was here to talk about the data they already publish openly and the challenges ahead if other aspects of travel are to do the same. Traveline already publish open data about bus routes and timetables and this is used by many of the big journey planners. They would like to do the same for fares next but this presents a big challenge. Many operators are under no obligation to provide this data (outside of making customers aware of fares and fare changes on buses, for example). What format are they in? Can they work with other formats? Will they need to be converted to another format entirely? Software for managing buses might be different to the software that tracks fares. Some of that data is only managed at a depot level, not national. What a headache! Traveline want to put the customer first. They are increasingly aware of the shift in travel patterns and want to help everyone get the best possible experience from their journey.

One theme was consistent throughout - the customer. Making a service catered to their needs. Finding out about their travel patterns so that they could be alerted to disruptions on their usual route. Giving them choice. Providing the most economical fare and a payment method they are comfortable with. Helping them make informed decisions based on the data available.

The challenge now was - how do we make this happen? Part 2 coming soon...