14 min

Will Open Public Transport Data Benefit Citizens?

Public transport data is increasingly published as open data sets. They are usually published in municipal and national open data portals and are often used by third-party developers to create apps for end-users.

A red and a yellow bus.
Written by
Juliana Carvalho
Published on
August 24, 2022

Public transport data is increasingly published as open data sets. They are usually published in municipal and national open data portals and are often used by third-party developers to create apps for end-users. This helps to explain why Colpaert and Rojas Meléndez, researchers and authors of the transport chapter of the State of Open Data book, stated that “public transport has been a poster-child of the open data movement with a variety of route planning applications used by millions of people every day”.

Apps like Moovit, Citymapper, TransitApp or even interactive online maps such as Google Maps use public transport-related open data to feed information to their users. At a first glance, it looks like a win-win situation, right? Citizens get better mobility information and services. Businesses have a chance to offer useful apps and obtain profits from them.

However, what is in it for public transport authorities and operators? Are they opening up their data to promote higher levels of transparency and potentially collect reputational gains from it? Are they doing it only because a law obliges them to do it? Or is it a part of the effort to become “smarter”? Are they relying on third-party developers to deal with the issues they have no resources or expertise on, such as app development? Are they sourcing out the responsibility to bring innovative solutions to public transport challenges? These, and many more questions start to emerge when we have a closer look at the intersection between open public transport data and app development.

To start to investigate these issues, I have looked at some cases, that in a sense can be considered frontrunners in this topic. They are all cases from “global cities”, that already have a well-established online presence where they share their mobility data. By looking at how transport authorities and operators are opening up their mobility datasets. We can shed some light on what is their underlying rationale and to what extent they are committed to providing public benefits through open data. But first, let’s explore some of the main arguments that support opening up data in the transport sector.

Why Should Transport Data Be Open?

There are many examples of how data and new technologies can be used to disrupt and improve mobility experiences in modern cities (this report involving the European Transport Workers’ Federation and the Union Internationale des Transports Publics (UITP) is a good example of public transportation). Intelligent transportation systems, autonomous driving technologies, and artificial intelligence are some of the key topics that are said to have the potential to revolutionize mobility as we know it. There are many promises regarding the overall role of digitalization to push the boundaries of transportation practices in the near future. They are usually presented under the conceptual umbrella of the smart city.

A priori, the free-of-charge availability of data makes it possible for private actors to engage in the provision of services, offering a wide variety of travel information products, from route planning tools to finding parking and car-sharing options. In turn, the market-led response can increase efficiency for end consumers and release transportation authorities and operators from certain tasks.

According to the UITP, open data in the transport sector benefits public transport users, the transport sector in itself, and the economy. A schematic overview of this argument can be seen in the image below. Even though there are costs to establishing and maintaining open data, as well as certain risks, such as the privacy of travellers, it is believed that collaboration can lead to societal and economical gains. This might be why opening up data is more of a policy-driven initiative than a legally-required action in the transportation field, as articulated here.

Even though many governments have laws protecting and promoting the “right to information”, there is still a long way until “open by default”, a goal shared by open data advocates (as established in one of the principles of the Open Data Charter), becomes a widespread practice. And there are many issues associated with the costs of opening up transport data.

Source: UITP. (2014). Action Points for the Public Transport Sector: The Benefits of Open Data.

In spite of the challenges, it has been noted that there is a policy push in favour of more open transport data in the US and in Europe. The recent European Directive on “open data and the re-use of public sector information” is a clear example. It identifies mobility as one of the “thematic categories of high-value datasets” that should be prioritized and counted with certain specific arrangements for its publication, such as the provision of Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) to facilitate its reuse. According to this directive, “There is general value in re-using and sharing data via a suitable use of APIs as this will help developers and start-ups to create new services and products. It is also a crucial ingredient of creating valuable ecosystems around data assets that are often unused.”

Another clear example can be found in the Shared Mobility Principles. Launched in 2017, they were developed to guide urban decision-makers and stakeholders to make the most out of the opportunities of the fast-paced technology-driven innovations in the mobility landscape. Their eighth principle states that “We aim for public benefits via open data”, acknowledging that “the data infrastructure underpinning shared transport services must enable interoperability, competition and innovation while ensuring privacy, security, and accountability”. The principles have been endorsed by 160+ agencies, companies, and NGOs around the world.

Risks of Opening Up Transport Data

The level of openness can vary a great deal. A good schematic overview regarding mobility-related data level of openness was prepared by Catapult. This spectrum is important because it is deeply connected with the risks of opening up data. Even though this is out of the scope of this blog, partially due to length constraints, let us just make a brief note on this topic.

Source: Catapult — Connected Places — The Case for Government to Incentivise Transport Data Sharing in the UK (2017)

Using personal data in transport ethically is an important aspect for businesses that wish to operate in this sector. A good reference on this topic is the Open Data Institute report (2018). In this document, it is stressed how trust is an important aspect of data sharing practices and it is recommended that data should be “as open as possible”, recognizing the importance of protecting transport users’ privacy and security (for differentiation between privacy and security concerns in the realm of big data and transport see box 5, page 33 of this International Transport Forum report).

We have already seen some cases where breaches in data have generated problems, like the time hackers stole data from Über and the company ended up having to pay quite a lot of money to deal with the situation. Apparently, the incident didn’t have any consequences for the users. Many, maybe most, didn’t even realize this happened. Although criminal actions to breach data are an issue in itself, it calls attention to the importance of what data is being made available, under what conditions, with what level of detail, and who is responsible for and able to safeguard the data and its correct treatment. If you are interested in this topic, I would recommend having a look at the UK Anonymization Network’s Anonymisation Decision Making Framework.

How are Public Transport Authorities & Operators Making Their Data Open?

Let’s start with a disclaimer/invitation to collaborate: I initially looked into this topic in one of my PhD courses, about 2 years ago. It has an exploratory approach and some interesting insights that need to be examined further. I would love to dive deeper in the future. If you are interested, do reach out!

The main goal here was to start exploring how urban transport authorities and operators are responding to the challenge of opening up their data, specifically in regards to allowing it to be used by third-party developers for commercial gains. The focus is on passenger transport, particularly in urban contexts. However, some of the arguments in favour of more open data in the transport sector can be applied to freight and logistics. I selected ten cases from global cities: London, Paris, Madrid, Barcelona, Helsinki, New York, Chicago, Montreal, Sydney, and Auckland. I have examined their open data initiatives, exploring the transport authorities and/or operators’ websites.

When looking at the licences associated with the open transport data available online, there was quite a lot of variety. Many adopt the Creative Commons — Attribution 4.0 CC-BY license (Montreal, Sidney, and partially Paris and Helsinki). The Open Data Commons Open Database License is also adopted (Helsinki and Paris). London, Paris in part, Madrid, Barcelona, and Auckland have uniquely tailored licences. What surprised me the most was the topic of commercial use. In some cases, it was absent (like in the cases of Chicago and New York), but in one it was actually stated that no commercial use is allowed (see the Auckland example). This is a huge disincentive for those who might be interested in offering some sort of service using the data. From an app developer standpoint, when dealing with these types of services, the risk of the data becoming out of reach seems unavoidable. This also might demotivate some interested and able parties to get involved with these sets of data.

Turning to the procedure of actually accessing the data, we found that while a lot of content is openly available on the cases webpages, part of the information of interest for app development is only available after registering. Most registration processes are simple and straightforward, using online forms and email confirmation. In the case of London’s Transport for London (TfL — the transportation authority for the greater city), it is interesting to notice that the form collects certain data that can be useful for the authority to map the interested third-party actors’ profiles. It does so in a way that does not deter registration, since the form is simple and short.

This is interesting because it allows a refinement of the policy and delivers a better understanding of the specific audience they are reaching in the developer’s community. In the case of Barcelona’s Transports Metropolitans de Barcelona (TMB), it can also be said that some profile data is gathered since they use existing social network profiles for registration. Nonetheless, these are not structured according to their interests, and therefore may not be as suitable to inform institutional actions.

Considering the open data principles and the general understanding of its application to public transportation data using UITP action points on data as a reference, it is surprising to see certain barriers to registration present in some cases, particularly in the case of Paris’s Régie Autonome des Transport Parisiens (RATP) (through a not fully digitalized process and a necessity of institutional approval), and in the Chicago’s Transit Authority (CTA), that also requires approval before granting access.

Another aspect we looked at was how mobility apps are being displayed on the transportation authorities’ websites. Two points are important to keep in mind here.

First, enabling third-party app development does not necessarily mean that transportation authorities and operators will not have their own apps. One could question why official apps are still being developed if there is a possibility of — and maybe a bet on — rendering this task to the market, to obtain more efficient information services in return. However, it is important to keep in mind that the possibility of third-party development is not a guarantee that it will happen, nor can it easily vouch for the quality of the apps being offered.

Assessing the quality of apps can also be a costly process. In this sense, it may be strategic for authorities not to rely solely on third-party developers but develop at least a simple official information app themselves. This way they can ensure that at least the basic information is available and reliable.

Second, making it possible for these apps to be developed does not mean endorsing them, although in many cases they might be and might even get publicized on the official platforms. In the case of Paris’ RATP, there is a clear distinction between where official RATP apps are and where the “outsiders” creations are displayed. The third-party apps are a very specialised section of the webpage, and one could argue that they are virtually accessible only to the developers’ community.

In the case of Madrid’s municipal company, charged with public transport planning (Empresa Municipal de Transportes de Madrid), it is declared that apps have to be approved before being published. Although they don’t clarify the requisites for getting approved (or at least we didn’t find info published about this) they are all on the same page, in different “tabs”. The case of Montreal’s Société de Transport de Montreal is interesting: notwithstanding the lack of clarity regarding what products get displayed and why they do have a differentiation between endorsed apps and the other options.

Photo by Roman Fox

Some Reflections

It is important to keep in mind why transport data should be more open and assume a people-centered approach to public value creation in mobility services. To achieve this, better coordination and more collaboration between public and private sectors will be fundamental. Data sharing is a key piece of the puzzle. The main existing barriers are more political than technical.

To give an example: a recent European study found evidence that there is “a mismatch between available data sets and the data sets that are most re-used” and therefore “the public sector needs to better align their data provision strategy with the specific needs of users”. In this sense, it is important to further investigate the needs, expectations and limitations of different stakeholders in regard to this digitalized data economy as Canales, a tools and data innovation associate at WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities, and his co-authors proposed in this working paper. Many shared-mobility actors advocate for open data as a way to promote public benefits, but on the other side, some transportation authorities are beginning to question how the private sector is — or how it should be — giving back.

A good example is the United States National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) policy brief on managing mobility data. According to this document, cities should require data from private actors to promote public good and treat geospatial mobility data in a protected manner, as they do with personally identifiable information (PII). They strongly recommend cities be clear about their purposes for the data and that data sharing agreements “should allow cities to own, transform, and share data without restriction (so long as standards for data protection are met).”

Socio-spatial Consequences

Another key concern: is there a possibility that relying on third-party developers to respond to public needs will increase socio-spatial inequalities? Will people living in underserved areas by public transport (such as many peri-urban poor neighbourhoods) have apps developed for their needs? Or will developers privilege potential customers that can pay more for their services? In urban studies, the logic of privileging some “champion cities” or the dynamics of “winner-take-all cities” presents key points for concern when thinking about the new equilibriums that might emerge with the evolving mobility landscape. Mobility apps might “champion” some areas of cities, while leaving others, possibly already underserved areas, out of their radar, so to speak.

The idea that some territories are favoured to the detriment of others has always been a topic of interest in spatial studies, due to the dilemma between pursuing clustering advantages and or remedying uneven development. In the case of relying on private initiatives to take advantage of open data to promote mobility solutions, we may be faced with a reinforcement of socio-spatial inequalities, particularly considering that many of the new mobility business models depend on high concentrations of the population to be profitable.

Photo by Melanie Brown

In this sense, we should question if the idea that consumers will gain the most with open data can be taken for granted — or at least ask ourselves which consumers will benefit.

Who knows, we might see new business models in the mobility landscape that actually serve the underserved areas, offering new transport alternatives to people who are in transport-poor areas. A good example here is the case of London’s TfL. It has clearly embraced the idea of collaboration with third-party actors to advance mobility services. Nonetheless, it still recognizes that it needs to be present in some areas. According to their official blog, those developing for commercial purposes generally ‘cherry pick’ the easy stuff that will sell their app, so apps are rarely comprehensive.

Way Forward

The role of governments in this new open data landscape is changing and challenging. A key issue is the risk of information asymmetry, which can hinder their capacity to sustain a meta-governance role, steering developments towards public value creation (this is a great paper on this topic).

I believe it is important that governments, from local to national levels, are not only aware of the complexities associated with open transport data but are preparing themselves for it. This preparation should include training their staff and ensuring they have the right competencies to deal with emerging issues. It should also rely on collaborative arrangements, not only with private actors, but also with academia, and with citizens and civil society organisations. It is true that this makes processes more complex, but it helps to ensure that public value is created and potentially strengthens governments’ role as regulators that steer developments towards higher accessibility for everyone.

In order to truly take advantage of the potential of data sharing to promote better and more sustainable mobility systems, making them safer, more accessible, more integrated and efficient, healthier, and greener, it is important not only to open up and share data, but it is also really important to get better data that reflects the diversity of mobility needs and aspirations, and to get better mobility services that indeed leave no one behind.

As it was stated in the European Mobility Atlas of 2021, mobility is not gender-neutral (just take a look at the image below). Addressing the gender bias in transport is challenging and will require a change in transport planning mindset to include accessibility variables alongside cost-and-benefit analyses that are mainly focused on traffic efficiency. As was stated in a World Bank article, “While factoring gender considerations into all transport-related policy and investment choices may seem like a challenge, the benefits to women and to society at large more than justify the additional complexity.”

Source: EUMA2021 Mobility of Women picture: Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung licence: CC-BY-SA 4.0

We are only beginning to tap into the potential of mobility data for sustainable transitions. We should move forward ensuring the transition promotes social-spatial equity.

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