In the Quest For Open Data, How Do Cities and Transport Operators Move Forward?

By Annie Butkiewicz, Content and Communications Officer, Autonomy

Today there are many actors in the movement to open city data, but if you asked city officials even 10 years ago about the subject, many would have questioned why public actors should open their data. Giles Bailey was faced with this dilemma when he worked for Transport for London.

“Do we give the public data away that we’ve paid a lot of money to build?” said Bailey, who was the head of a TfL innovation team faced with these questions in 2012, “That’s rather odd.”  

As he was leading the innovation team at TfL, there were a plethora of questions about sharing open data.

“But quite quickly we got to the point where we realized there are many benefits for a public organization in opening data.”

Collecting a city’s mobility data isn’t a new phenomenon, in fact, various transportation operators have been doing so for decades, or even longer. There’s a long history of cities capturing traffic and pedestrians counts – traditionally a city worker would stand in a certain spot with a clicker, counting people walking by at a particular point.

But with the rise of new technologies, so much more valuable information can be collected from people’s cell phones and from apps. David Zipper, a transport advisor to various cities in the United States agrees that data does indeed have the potential to be the “new oil” for urban mobility, but cautions there is still a lot of uncertainty surrounding how it will be shared and used.

“That is where a lot of the attention is going,” Zipper said. “It’s a little bit of the wild west now because no one quite knows how it’s going to unfold.”

So, in this new “wild west” of open data, what is the role of cities and public actors? Perhaps the next and arguably most important step for the widespread use of open data is not just encouraging greater private and public collaboration in data sharing (in fact, that already happens quite a bit). Rather, open data should be made available to the public.

Public transit and city mapping apps are excellent examples of how the public can benefit from a city releasing its data, while also saving the city serious money. For instance, TfL and Madrid’s transport agency, EMT Madrid, view transportation data as being public information and as such, should be included in the public expenditure. Rather than run up the expenditure by creating their own transit or trip planning apps, they open their data so that private companies like CityMapper or Waze can use it to enhance their own mapping services. Beatrice Mercier, an open data officer for France’s said trip planning apps are long, expensive projects taken on by French transport authorities themselves. 

“French transport authorities, and even regional governments still devote sizeable parts of their budget to creating digital trip planning tools,” Mercier said. “Both TfL and EMT Madrid have decided not to create their own apps as the private sector offers many high quality services which serve the commuting public’s interests, allowing them to save massively.”

As in any field, technology can be a blessing and a curse. And as more and more “smart” cities implement IoT devices and collect data to manage assets and resources efficiently, it’s more important for government transparency, accountability, and public participation. Many governments launched open data websites around the same time that Bailey and his team grappled with these fundamental questions about open data. Nine years later, a number of cities and local governments are still working on opening their data. It’s a huge step for public actors because it can cost a lot of money to aggregate, anonymize and standardize data, a margin that sometimes is not sustainable for smaller actors. Bailey, who is also a consultant and advocate for open data, said this was not an issue for TfL as it is a large organization that could afford it. By comparison, the margins of running open data as opposed to running a transport system for 9 million people is miniscule. But for other smaller transport operators, the margins are quite problematic. Finding 50,000 or 100,000 to make your open data policy live and ensure that it’s in the right format is not a trivial matter, and a lot of public sector organizations still struggle with this aspect of business.

Apart from the benefits of public accountability and transparency, open data fosters a culture of creativity and ingenuity, and the data collected can help cities define and regulate new technologies and spaces for the greater good. One notable action on many cities’ agendas is the need to delineate new spaces. Take the curb, for example. With so many new micro mobility actors in the urban mobility scene, the curb is a hot commodity. As CityLab journalist Andrew Small wrote, “[it’s] no longer just a home for parked cars and cigarette butts, this is where the action is in the 21st century city.” Not only is there a need for curb data, whether this be collected publicly or privately, but it needs to be open, as this would allow for city actors to create more appropriate uses of road space, creating more bike lanes where there’s higher bike traffic, for example. In turn this would allow private companies to tailor their services according these new spaces and infrastructures.

Fortunately there has been some recent advances in collecting and sharing this crucial data with the arrival of organisations such as Shared Streets, whose goal is to create a sort of glossary of public-private, collaborative and comprehensive information about streets. The company Coord launched the free database Open Curbs, which pins the locations of wheelchair cuts, fire hydrants, bus stops, and other defining aspects of the curb for digital maps. According to Zipper these types of platforms will help cities create inclusive spaces that can benefit all of their citizens.  

“I mean those are the issues that really unite city leaders across the United States because cities are dominated by relatively progressive and inclusive politics,” Zipper said.

In another example of a new powerful open data instrument, The city of Los Angeles can collect scooter-rider data using a real-time rider tracking tool it originally created in response to the dockless free-floating bike boom called MDS (Mobility Data Specification). This tool became particularly useful following the sudden and rapid introduction of free-floating electric scooter schemes to the city as officials initially had no way of knowing how they operated or how to regulate them. Although it has been an effective tool for Los Angeles Department of Transportation, it has garnered widespread criticism from data privacy advocates who believe the real-time aspect and potential hackability of anonymous data is a major cause for concern. While privacy is an important issue that must be addressed, it is ultimately important that transportation departments such as LADOT understand what’s happening on city streets because of new technologies that are coming, not just scooters and ride-hailing, but also electric unicycles, drones and autonomous vehicles.

“We also need to be able to ensure that we can achieve public purposes when those new technologies arrive,” Zipper said, “And to do that we need to have some way of managing technology data to be able to have information and then use that information to change behavior.”

On a smaller scale, the collaboration between the French Metropolis of Lille and Waze shows how this allows for better preparation and regulation, according to Open Data consultant, Etienne Pichot, who formerly worked on the project between Lille and Waze. In this case, Lille agreed to share their construction data (also available to the public on their Open Data platform) in exchange for Waze’s traffic and accident data, allowing Waze to accordingly redirect traffic. The potential cost-saving benefits of sharing open data aren’t available yet, Pichot said, but these data will benefit communities and road users, and also help cities better prepare for future mobility technologies

These relationships built to share data between private and public actors also create trust, according to Michal Nakashimada, product manager at Ride Report, who works at bridging the data gap between cities and private operators in the U.S. Perhaps the biggest obstacle is also the simplest: answering the question of why and what do cities want to do with data. When posed with the question of what are cities looking for in terms of data collection, Nakashimada responded with a laugh, “It’s a funny question…the most prevalent reason they come to us is that they don’t know what they want.”

In the “wild” world of the quest to share and open urban mobility data, (and what’s more, it’s a fast-paced and quickly changing environment) the future is still unclear for what open data will look like, but looks bright for mobility operators and cities when everyone’s working together to share data. But, as Nakashimada said, the actors share the same goal and want to work together.

“I think in this ecosystem especially, we all have the same goals,” Nakashimada said. “We want to build great micro mobility systems, we want to build the infrastructure in our cities, and we want to do it in the right way.”