Real time journey information systems – enabling innovation through data sharing and interoperability

Over the last few years, I’ve been involved in a number of projects involving the creation and use of transport and journey information in the transport sector. These include the procurement of real time passenger information (RTPI) (where real time journey information is made available to passengers online and through on-street display boards) and smart ticketing systems and the opening up of that data to third parties through an API.

When procuring a RTPI system, there are a number of issues to consider.

Firstly, who owns the data? RTPI systems are often procured by a local authority or regional transport partnership. The location data going in to the system may be collected by equipment owned by the local authority (or the contractor operating the system) and deployed on vehicles or by the bus company’s own fleet tracking system. It will then be processed by the RTPI system to provide the real time journey data. The contracts that are put in place between the various entities need to make clear who owns the data and what rights each of the other parties have to use it.

Secondly, it’s important that the RTPI system enables interoperability. This will allow data to be shared with other RTPI systems (for example, multi-modal or in neighbouring geographic areas) and other users (for example, mobile apps developers seeking to incorporate journey information in their products and services). This means that the system will need to include appropriate APIs that make the data available in a recognised industry standard format. As part of any support and maintenance arrangements, those interfaces should keep up with market developments on interoperability.

Re-use of public sector information regulations
Part of the reason for local authorities making available data through an API is a response to the Re-use of Public Sector Information Regulations, which implemented an EU directive on the re-use of public sector information directive (the PSI Directive) and the UK Government’s Open Data iniative.

The regulations are intended to open up access to information and datasets held by public authorities, so that publicly owned data can be reused for innovative purposes. The regulations provide rules on requests to reuse information held by public sector organisations. RTPI and journey data is a good example of data that can be reused and mashed up into other applications.

Notably, the regulations prohibit public authorities from acting in a discriminatory manner or from entering into exclusive arrangements in relation to the re-use of public sector information unless that arrangement is in the public interest. This means that local authorities should not be entering into exclusive arrangements in relation to the use of transport information that they hold.

The regulations also limit any charges that the public authority may levy on the use of the information. The authority may recover a “reasonable return on investment”, but cannot charge for the costs it has incurred if it has already charged the recipient under freedom of information or data protection laws.

The authority should also publish details of its charging structure and terms of use of the information.

Rather than develop bespoke interfaces and licence terms for each person seeking to utilise the data, the easiest way for local authorities to make available RTPI data is through a publicly available API, with a standard form licence setting out the terms of use.

Proposed reform
The European Commission is currently consulting on new legislation in this sector.

It does not think that the PSI Directive has been effective in ensuring open access to transport data. Notably, the PSI Directive applies only to public sector bodies (so not private transport operators), and does not apply to information where the intellectual property rights are owned by a third party – for example, the bus or train company in question.

The Commission is therefore proposing that all transport operators are obliged to make available, fare, schedule and real time journey information in an industry standard format. The Commission proposes that the European standardisation bodies work together to develop related standards to ensure interoperability using a common standard.

This should help to open up access to transport data that is not currently being made available, and lead to new and innovative use of that data by third party developers.

What’s not clear from the proposed consultation is how the reforms will work in practice. In the UK, public transport is largely run by companies in the private sector. However, RTPI systems for buses tend to be operated by local authorities or regional transport partnerships, who then aggregate data from different operators. In order for the reforms to be effective the new laws will need to cover all parts of the chain.

There will be other concerns as well. In the UK, the bus industry is regulated by traffic commissioners, who have powers to fine operators for late running services. There is often a tension between bus companies and local authorities when making available real time journey information as that could be used to easily analyse the company’s performance without the need for commissioners to stand at bus stops with a watch, a timetable and a clipboard. It will be interesting to see whether the transport industry lobbies against this requirement.

In the meantime, any organisation considering procuring an RTPI or other transport data system should ensure that their technical specification addresses interoperability, the use of common (or mandated standards) and APIs to help ensure compliance with the Commission’s proposals.

The consultation closes on 12 March 2013.

Martin Sloan

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