Whether data is the “new oil” or not, it’s beyond doubt that free and unlimited access to Open Data is of great benefit for society:

  • Increase transparency. The legal requirement to publish some datasets is a motivation for the government to put in place good practices on data management. Moreover, it’s good for democracy as general public and journalists can audit the data.
  • Promote innovation. Free access to data encourages developers to build new software that wouldn’t be possible otherwise (like us!) and researchers to investigate and collaborate globally. Combining data from different areas that are usually isolated can lead to find interesting and valuable discoveries.
  • Boost economy. The economic value of open data is several tens of billions of Euros annually in the EU alone. Some figures from the European Data Portal report are: Between 2016 and 2020, the market size of open data is expected to increase by 36.9%, to a value of €75.7bn in 2020; the forecasted number of direct open data jobs in 2016 is 75,000 jobs; the forecasted public sector cost savings for the EU28+ in 2020 are €1.7bn.

Open Data is a hot topic for Department for Transport (DfT) right now, with lots of bus companies taking part in a market engagement around open data provision. The engagement seeks to identify their role in providing data openly on which new products and services can be built, and the challenges and opportunities associated with doing that.

The DfT is also engaging with us, the transport tech community, in the form of the events like All Aboard the Data Bus, to work out how best to support open data objectives from central government. With this in mind, this article takes a look at some of the open datasets in our Passenger product already, and how we use them to build applications that scale, at lower cost than alternative, commercial data sources.

Data.gov.uk

The UK government has had a great Open Data repository since 2010. Most of the datasets are available under the Open Government Licence, which allow the free use and exploitation of the data. In particular, we use three datasets from this repository:

  • National Public Transport Access Node (NaPTAN) database is a system for uniquely identifying all points of access to public transport in Great Britain. It contains a record for each of around 400,000 bus stops across England, Scotland and Wales, as well as for all other transport terminals such rail stations and airports. We use it to provide bus and tram stop information (i.e. name, identifier, geolocation and bearings). We also provide tools to operators to find errors in NaPTAN data and work with them to fix them (in the open data, so that everyone benefits).
  • National Public Transport Gazetteer (NPTG) is a database of localities (cities, towns, villages and other settlements) in Great Britain. Names are those that would be used by the people that reside or work in that place. We use it to enhance our search system and our journey planner. We also collect feedback around its accuracy, so that it improves.
  • Traveline National Dataset (TNDS) contains public transport timetables for bus, light rail, tram and ferry services in Great Britain. Where we don’t have access to source TransXChange data from transport operators, we use the TNDS to power network and journey planning parts of our apps instead. One such implementation is our multi-operator travel information app for Nottingham City Council (which has just been updated with some nice NFC smart card reading tools!).

Open maps

You’ll no doubt have used Google Maps at some point in your life, and you haven’t you’ve probably heard of it. It’s a great application and has made it easier to plan a trip virtually anywhere in the world. We love it and use the map tiles element of the Google Maps SDK in all of our apps. Unsurprisingly though, this comes with commercial strings attached. Google Maps data and tiles are the opposite of open data. If you use them a lot, then there’s a price tag. Relying too much on Google’s ecosystem to supply data can lead to expensive licenses to access data at volume. Of course this is just one of the ways Google makes money.

Back in 2004, a British entrepreneur called Steve Coast created a collaborative project to build a free editable map known as OpenStreetMap (OSM). OpenStreetMap has become very popular and large companies and organisations rely on this platform and the open data it provides.

OSM data powers Passenger apps search and journey planner

 

OpenStreetMap is a fantastic tool. We use its data in our app search and journey planner functionalities. By using open data here we’re able to keep the cost of using location data under control, and this is can be a very significant saving. Using OpenStreetMap data instead, as we do in all of our apps, allows us to scale apps to more users, without an associated scaling of data charges. This can then be channelled into far more productive areas for your business.

We also encourage operators and end users to improve OpenStreetMap information as it’s as easy as contributing to Wikipedia.

Consumers and producers

Using data from different sources can sometimes be frustrating due to quality issues. We have learned over the years that whilst openness is important, data quality is crucial for creating and maintaining great apps (for apps, read ‘customer experience’). We are helping operators to identify problems in the data with tools built into our importing processes. This helps to provide visibility to errors so that they can be fixed. In turn, their users benefit from accurate apps and trust builds in the service.

Open data has its challenges, but when harnessed well it can really help innovative products and services, such as Passenger, get off the ground. Our thanks go out to everyone supporting the open data agenda and the data we use every day. You play a huge part in helping a lot of people travel on public transport, which without doubt is the solution to one of the biggest challenges of our times – traffic congestion.