Open Data for Local transportation

(this page is part of my Open Data, Open Society report. Please follow that link to reach the introduction and Table of Content, but don’t forget to check the notes to readers!)

Productivity and other losses caused by car traffic amount to 40 billions Euros per year in Italy alone. Still in Italy, time wasted for the same reason amounts each year to 240 hours per person in Milan, 210 in Naples and 260 in Rome. Besides saving time and reducing stress, that is increasing productivity, public transit is also the single most effective way to cut one’s contribution to carbon dioxide pollution.

Many people already know this, but don’t use public transportation because it is, or is considered, much more unreliable when planning even a short trip in the city than using a private car. Having correct, real time information about how much time and money it will take to go somewhere with public buses, taxis and trains or how much time one should spend waiting at some bus stop is a big, very important support and stimulus to use public transportation more. The practical consequences of having this information go even further than that. Knowing how long one will have to wait till the next bus comes can mean realizing that you may have time to take a coffer or buy something at the street corner, and it would be particularly useful for citizens with reduced mobility.

Knowing that their potential customers can have such information straight from the sources in real time on their smartphones is also good for shop owners, especially those in historical neighborhoods: if people can rely on such services they will be encouraged to come shopping with buses, therefore reducing merchants opposition to traffic and parking restrictions in the same areas. Finally, especially when linked with those about city budgets and/or pollution levels, these data can raise awareness of all the financial and energy-saving benefits of using public transportation.

Applications that provide real time information on local transportation are already available in several parts of the world, even if each of them is probably already used by only a small percentage of the people that could benefit from it. European examples include the Helsinki Journey Planner, the Kèolis portal in Rennes, France, and the Spanish “Donde en Zaragoza”.

Kèolis, after only three weeks from its opening on March 1st 2010 had already given birth to 5 applications exploiting its original data, visible at Levelostar. Donde en Zaragoza allows iPhone users to know where is the closest bus stop or wi-fi hotspots. As soon as more PSI datasets become freely available, the application will also signal libraries, ATM machines, pharmacies, parks and other public interest services. In the USA, Seattle has the OneBusAway Open Source Tool to find real-time transit and arrival information for trains and buses in the Puget Sound region.

Rodalia provides real time information about schedules and status of local trains in the Barcelona area, collecting and displaying on its page, both in text format and on maps, official announces and accidents/status reports sent by train users via Twitter. Information of the second type is especially important at rush hours, while in other moments the most relevant contributions are sourced by official websites. The service became very popular from its very beginning, thanks to messages sent via Twitter and lots of media coverage. Initially the Government of Catalonia reacted to negatively, because they had started their own similar service at the same time. However, when they saw the quality and speed of Rodalia (sometimes users add information to the website via Twitter before the administration itself adds it to the official web page) they changed attitude and started to support it. Initially, for example, the official website was not using open Web standards like RSS for announcing news. A few weeks after Rodalia administrators (in order to simplify their own work) asked to switch to RSS and to classify incidents by lines, the administration did it. In other words, the existence of Rodalia (which is possible thanks to free use of PSI like train timetables) offers a public service at no cost for taxpayers and its competition has improved the quality of the official portal. According to Rodalia manager Roger Melcior: “We make money with Google ads, but our main result is that we have changed the way the administration works: we set the agenda for us”.

Open PSI related to transportation, roads or train networks isn’t only useful for people that travel, or should travel, with public transportation. The portal hosts an interesting proposal that shows how many different but always useful ways there could be to combine data when they are available: an addition to car GPS navigators like Tomtom and Garmin to inform drivers when they approach a road with a history of fatalities and casualties, so they could slow down and pay even more attention than usual. Tim Berners Lee described in an interview a case where something very similar has been actually done by several independent programmers in less than 48 hours: a map showing all the bike accidents within the last three years so bikers, so “you can find your journey to work and maybe modify it to take another route, or put pressure on the government to deal with dangerous spots”. Finally, in Warwickshire a web based application displays on Google maps the official height and weight restriction data for local bridges, helping freelance truck drivers and freight agencies to plan their trips.