For many years, there were only a limited number of ways to find out if a train was delayed, or where it was and wasn’t calling. Now, open data is rewriting the rule book.
Open data, in short, is available to any one of us. It is data released by big organisations which, in the transport sector, is changing the way passengers are fed information and, moreover, how they travel.
In April, Transport for London (TfL) announced that more than 2,000 new developers had signed up for its open data programme in the preceding six months. The Application Programme Interface (API) allows developers to register to access TfL data free of charge, and use it as they please – creating journey planner apps, live maps, real-time location services, and so on.
“In 2009 we began to make large volumes of data available,” says Phil Young, head of online at TfL. “Initially that was things like the location of stations, but very quickly it became the live data. We have now around 200 items that people query and it is all forms of transport. All we ask is that people attribute us, say you’re powered by TfL.”
In total, more than 8,000 developers are signed up with TfL, ranging from large technology companies to ‘high-volume app developers’ to SMEs and academic institutions. “I think we’ve reached a critical mass with open data in London,” says Young. “It is widely talked about and known.”
It is not just TfL and London. Network Rail (NR), the Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC) and National Rail Enquiries (NRE) release feeds such as train timetables, station footfall, and train positioning and movement event data. Those wishing to use this have to create accounts and agree to the terms and conditions.
As one example, data from a system known as Darwin powers NRE and train company websites, mobile apps and departure board screens, but it can also be used by the open data community. Openness is growing, but when and why did this subset of the industry emerge?
For Peter Hicks, the “big moment” was 2011. Hicks, who runs OpenTrainTimes – built on open data from NR – the Open Rail Data Wiki and a dedicated forum, all in his spare time, took the decision “to knock on the right doors” and get the word out. In 2010, the UK Government also pushed a transparency agenda, encouraging organisations to share what they have. NR and ATOC soon did just that.
“Ten years ago, if I wanted to know if my train was on time, I’d have to go to the NRE website before I left the office to check. There was no possibility of doing something different,” he says.
“Where we are now, the industry is more transparent, which in turn means they are more honest about what goes on. I’m of the belief that being transparent and honest puts you in a better light. People are incredibly cynical about rail travel in the UK, but open data can help.”
Transparency is something Hicks mentions more than once. His OpenTrainTimes website (he’s currently working on an app version) started life as a very simple interface using static data from NR, whereby the user would enter their location to see the corresponding timetables.
Demand has since seen Hicks introduce data and maps that show the location of trains on the railway in real-time. He’s now seen as something of an expert in the field, not that it has all been easy. “I’ve had examples when my data has been wrong,” he continues, “but I don’t try to claim my website is always 100% accurate all the time, or infer things within the data that I know cannot be inferred.” The OpenTrainTimes website itself states that “It is as accurate as we can make it”.
In 2012, a chemistry undergraduate made it into national newspapers when word of his website spread. Ian Shortman built trains.im using timetable information, which The Guardian headlined: ‘How a student used open data to beat National Rail Enquiries at its own game’.
“I found myself frustrated when using the rail network,” explains Shortman.