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Can new generation apps boost appeal of bus travel?

TransportAPI’s Jonathan Raper talks to Deniz Huseyin about the transformative powers of accurate real-time travel apps, the case for making data freely available and why it makes sense to invest in platforms rather than bespoke models

Deniz Huseyin
26 October 2018


Bus operators are fighting hard to retain and grow their share of the local travel market, and they are investing heavily in a new generation of apps and on-bus services to help them deliver this aspiration. This is the new reality for bus operators, according to Jonathan Raper, CEO of TransportAPI. For the past decade, Raper has been at the forefront of a movement to develop journey data platforms. “We have now reached the point where real-time apps can give bus travel the edge over other demand response modes,” he says. 

“The bus beats them all on price and isn’t very far behind them on time, so it’s essential that more information is available about bus travel. We have already seen bus travel greatly enhanced by investment in wi-fi. Local authorities are building busways, bus lanes and on-road bus preference such as rising bollards. There are all sorts of preferential access measures for buses.” 

Clear and accurate journey information will add to the appeal of bus travel, says Raper. “If people knew more about how a journey was going to progress, if it was less of an unknown, I think that bus travel would become complementary to other modes.”

Once people can rely on live information to stitch together bus and rail journeys, bus travel will become more attractive for a more diverse group of users, states Raper.

TransportAPI has been working with National Express West Midlands to develop a real-time bus app, which will go live soon. “By cross-referencing on-board GPS data with the timetable and other information such as running boards, the app shows on a map where the bus is stopping and its progress,” explains Raper. “This represents an upgrade from stop predictions to knowing exactly where the bus is.” 

TransportAPI offers a platform based digital solution, which is designed to adapt to changing requirements. This, says Raper, is a more viable long-term option than what he describes as bespoke models. “IT is such an evolving, flexible and dynamic thing so a bespoke solution cannot, by its nature, survive change,” he argues. “A bespoke system is built on a single set of requirements on a single day, with the provider then charging increments on cost when the requirements change at the client end.”

Bespoke versus platform models

Conversely, a platform involves the laying down of solid foundations. “This ensures there is consistency across all the various digital services that you build.” Raper is concerned that too many public initiatives are based on ‘Project IT thinking’, which overlook the importance of platforms. “I am not saying we are the only people in the world offering a platform model. There are others in transport that have made similarly early investments in this area. But there are also a lot of people working in the transport sector without experience of building large-scale IT, and they are underestimating the challenges of long-term foundations. 

“In one sense you could argue: why should any of that matter if the client knows what they want to achieve, but it does mean that the platform model does not necessarily play as highly in their thinking as a bespoke model.” TransportAPI prides itself on helping clients develop a solution that is built to last. “It is a question of working with people to tease out what they want to achieve both now and in the longer term. With each client there is always a mix between listening hard to what they want and responding effectively to that while having an eye on where they might go next. It is important to have that conversation and explain that it might be necessary to scale up because of, say, extreme weather or back to school events, which can have a massive impact on transport. 

“We are learning more about our clients’ businesses, then trying to design and evolve our platform to produce value over several timescales – short, medium and long.”

Digital pioneers

The transport data sector is now a “multi-sided, competitive digital space”, observes Raper. “So, there are the internet majors like Google and Microsoft, alongside the new mobility providers like MaaS Global and car manufacturers with services to support demand responsive transport.”

TransportAPI believes it can anticipate future trends by watching what the internet giants are doing. “For example, the work Google is doing with transport data is world class – it’s the ability to deliver infinite numbers of transactions scalably everywhere. We  work hard to emulate that kind of quality of execution and in, some cases, we work with Google and their European resellers Snowdrop Solutions to deliver complementary solutions.” 

Raper compares the digital world to an iceberg: “Only a very small part sits above the water. The public see the app as a few screens, but they don’t realise that behind those screens there are very powerful processing databases, real-time transactions and integration with a huge range of business activities.”

TransportAPI’s first contract was with Transport for London in 2012 to provide information for live departure boards on the Overground network. That, in turn, led to a partnership with Heathrow, providing all the public transport information on their website and apps with details of the best journeys to and from the airport. 

Innovate UK has played a key role in TransportAPI’s development, funding several projects, says Raper. “This has been crucial for us. It has helped us work with much bigger organisations, learn their requirements and processes.” Funding from Innovate UK enabled the firm to develop its rail fares API as part of a project called Fareviz. 

“We worked with Raileasy, which is one of the two third-party suppliers of rail tickets along with Trainline. The point about Innovate UK projects is they are large-scale laboratories that give you the space to work things out.”

Another big client is First Group, with TransportAPI providing the transport information for all the operator’s apps. “Our platform is an API, which means it is a machine readable source.” An API (application programming interface) enables a web address to be placed on “every tiny bit of data”, Raper explains. “Then all those apps can reach into the API and pull out the precise bit of information the customer wants, such as how long until the next bus, where does this bus route go or how late is the next train.”

An estate of apps

Over the past couple of years First Group has built an ‘estate of apps’ that encompasses all its operating companies, says Raper. “We back that with our platform, which is fully integrated into their operating services. We work closely with a number of other First Group partners who deliver other aspects of their services. Our job is essentially to answer billions of queries very efficiently and rapidly. What we are doing is drawing on a set of harmonised sources that we have created, and to do this properly you must have a deep understanding of transport data.”

Problems can arise if different transport data sources are not correctly matched, Raper says. He cites the mismatch between Network Rail’s station data and NaPTAN (National Public Transport Access Nodes), the national dataset of bus stops rail stations, airports, ferry piers and tram/metro/underground stops.

“These two sources have been developed entirely separately, so if you have data in Network Rail’s stops and stations database and then different data in NaPTAN it can be very difficult to plan bus replacement services as the two sets of data have never been integrated.”

This is where TransportAPI can play a key role behind the scenes. “We do a lot of work at the back-end to make sure different sources of data fit together in real time.”

Free flowing data

The case for making data freely available grows ever more compelling, believes Raper. “We learned that data has very little intrinsic value unless it is highly restricted because data is very copyable and it can be redistributed at almost zero cost.”

Raper questions why government-owned mapping agency Ordnance Survey (OS) still charges for data. “OS is now living on an island of its own business model. It is unable to link out to the continents of digital service growth that exist elsewhere.”

The Government is reluctant to forego the income it generates from Ordnance Survey data, with any use of information chargeable and subject to licensing.  “Virtually everyone we work with in transport considers that a toxic model now,” says Raper. “So, they use OpenStreetMap instead, which is free. This is accurate enough unless you are doing high precision work, such as setting out the foundations of a new housing estate. But, say, you want to see the centre-line of a bus route you don’t need that level of precision. So, you can avoid OS and use OpenStreetMap.”

There have been experiments where local authorities attempted to charge for their data. “Once again, very little of that data has reached the market because you have to restrict it so much that it becomes difficult to redistribute any derived products.”

However, there are exceptions, such as the traffic information distributed by car services and transportation analytics specialist INRIX. “This is a fantastic product – the content is great and they have invested massively in producing it, however, they license it in a very constrained way. INRIX has concentrated on the high end of the market rather than distributing it to thousands of developers at small unit cost where it could enter many more applications.”

TransportAPI has followed a different route, making its intellectual property free to smaller users. “We believe passionately that those who create the value downstream should keep that value and profit from it. That grows our business if they are really productive with the data.”

Jonathan Raper played a key role in persuading Transport for London to release all their data. In 2010 he worked on the London Mayor’s Digital Advisory Board with Emer Coleman, the then director of digital projects at the Greater London Authority. Initially, TfL resisted freely sharing their internal data, Raper recalls. “One of the arguments was that releasing the data would expose internal problems. But what actually happened was that the vast innovation community was able to help solve many of the problems identified. It was a significant turning point and led to important partnerships between TfL and innovators.”

More than 5,000 organisations and developers have signed up to TransportAPI’s platform. “They are from 40 different sectors that range over the whole economy, not just transport users but also universities, estate agents, finance companies and advertisers. What we’re finding is there’s a real appetite for transport data.  And we don’t think there should be friction around data – it should be allowed to flow as freely as possible.”

Raper looks forward to the next phase of development at TransportAPI where the benefits of a secure and scalable platform become more widely shared into applications that drive policy aims such as mode-shift. He believes that there is huge potential in archiving of transport behaviour to help drive models and information services. Transport API is working with Transport for West Midlands to record the progress of all bus journeys from stop to stop in Birmingham so that ‘real journey times’ can be predicted for every kind of day and at each time of day. 

Better integration

Jonathan Raper is seeking to drive greater integration between data sources that can create value, and he is working on a partnership with ELGIN to integrate real-time roadworks information with bus delays. “At a time when the Government is planning to roll out lane rental charging for roadworks, we believe that bus operators will expect to share in the income stream becoming available to compensate them for the impacts on their operations and finances. This will require a robust evidence base of the kind that a platform like TransportAPI can provide.

“We over-estimate change in the short-term, and we under-estimate change in the long-term,” says Raper, “because change is stepped, for example, when we reach tipping points”. 

Raper believes that we are passing such a tipping point now, with the influence of platforms becoming decisive in the delivery of many Mobility-as-a-Service ambitions. Recent high-profile failures in ticketing illustrate how pervasive platform delivery has become in transport, and therefore how important it is to continually invest in platform scalability, he argues. “Transport data platforms are the new infrastructure, and all players in the transport ecosystem must have a platform strategy in 2018. We believe that Transport API can be a strong delivery partner for the longer term of transport infrastructure delivery, and our delivery record shows how hard we have worked to achieve that.”  

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