Data sharing is at the heart of commuter centric cities

By Astha Kapoor

March 16th, 2020

Today, it is unimaginable to arrive at a train station or airport without checking the status of the train or the flight that we plan to board. The ability to “track” a taxi in applications such as Uber and Ola, is a major reason for their massive adoption in spite of them being an expensive option. However, for millions of commuters using public transit — especially buses — in the major cities in India, journey planning is still offline and ad-hoc, due to the unavailability of information about the current operating routes and the real-time location of buses.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

This has not only resulted in decreased ridership in buses, but also serious degradation in their services. As a result, many of the public transit commuters are left with no option but to use single-occupancy vehicles including taxis leading to congestion as well as pollution in cities. Some estimates suggest that the cost of congestion in Delhi, which includes loss of productivity, air pollution costs & costs of accidents will be ~USD15,000 million/year by 2030.

An easy mechanism for commuters to find and track public transit options is the first step towards its wide-scale adoption. At the heart of this is an accurate public information system (PIS), which requires governments and transit agencies to transfer real-time data to developers who can in turn create the necessary protocols and applications to provide commuters the information and options they need. Many cities are beginning to understand the value of creating a robust PIS. Transport for London (TfL) for example, releases open data to developers to innovate solutions for citizens. Waze, a Google-owned navigation app, pulls TfL data along with police news feeds and crowdsourced information to provide commuters live traffic updates. It also provides TfL data on its buses, trains, roads, and on disruptions in the system, allowing the transit authority to respond quickly. In the United States, several government agencies and private players have come together to set up the Open Mobility Foundation, a global coalition to manage the growing number of vehicles and mobility options in cities. The objective of the foundation is to improve communication between cities and find ways to share real-time traffic management data to inform policy decisions.

In India, the Government of Delhi in collaboration with IIIT Delhi has created an open-transit-data (OTD) platform that shares both real-time locations of around 1800 orange buses which are currently being used by various researchers as well as private transit apps like Google maps, etc. The platform can be used to build a PIS that will be installed across bus stops in Delhi. The Delhi OTD can also be seamlessly merged into the Indian Urban Data Exchange (IUDX) — a data exchange supported by the Government of India to facilitate the sharing of data to ensure ‘data smart’ cities.

However, in spite of the clear value, the transit/government agencies have not been fully convinced about the benefits of opening and sharing the mobility data. Major barriers include lack of technical and administrative support as well as the absence of governing laws and policies around sharing and opening mobility data. Another hurdle is the lack of technical capacity in the transit agencies to build reliable systems that make sharing seamless and easy to use for the application developers. More fundamentally, there is a lack of trust in the process of data sharing among stakeholders.

These challenges can be overcome by building intermediaries or data stewards who act as a mechanism between data owners such as transit agencies and private entities. Data stewards can be viewed as a trust layer to safeguard the rights of users and other stakeholders while making sure that data can be used for societal good. They maintain the quality, safety of data while encouraging stakeholders to collaborate. Data stewards can adopt different kinds of models such as trusts, collaboratives, stores, each of which addresses peculiar concerns of the stakeholders and enforces laws and regulations for different types of data and uses cases. For example, CCTV data can be useful to transit authorities and developers to access as it can be used for enforcement of traffic rules and understanding safety concerns better. However, CCTV data also contains personally identifiable information for commuters such as their biometric (facial images) data, vehicle number plates, etc. In this scenario, a steward will make sure that while the data is unlocked it is also secure, and developers are using it for specifically stated purposes and nothing beyond. The steward can also hold developers liable on any misconduct, and therefore, is a good way to build trust in the new processes of sharing.

These solutions are only as good as the intents they represent. It is undeniable that Indian cities need better mobility solutions. The Mayor of London imagines that 4 out 5 rides in London will be through public transit by 2040. If India wants to compete and deal with the myriad of issues that plagues its cities, the government must make its data available in a safe, secure, and reliable way to encourage innovation for its people.