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IT AND DIGITAL INNOVATION


How open data benefits passengers and the economy


RTM talks to head of TfL Online, Phil Young, about the organisation’s open data policy and how it is helping passengers. the reach of another 1m or more customers.”


O


RR chair Anna Walker was among the speakers at the Rail Transparency


Conference in London in December, where she praised examples of organisations opening up their data to the public and to IT developers to benefit passengers.


She had specific praise for Transport for London, saying: “A good example of this is TfL’s open data policy that embraces the benefits of making data freely available on behalf of passengers and recognises that third- party developers are much better at bringing new products to market.”


RTM spoke to the head of TfL online, Phil Young, about its decision to embrace open data. He said: “We started out in 2007, looking initially at widgets, rather than data, as part of our work to explain the Tube upgrade programme – or the London Underground Investment Programme as it was then. We still have them at www.tfl.gov.uk/widgets – they’re pieces of pre-compiled HTML code that people can put onto their website.


“That was our first foray into this: we did the Tube map, live travel news and weekend disruption. It


was always our intention,


influenced by things like BBC Backstage, their developers’ area, to do much more for developers. That coincided in 2009 with the app development market really growing and the rise of smartphones.”


In 2009, TfL launched its own developers’ area, with a handful of data feeds, and by 2010 hundreds of developers had registered.


Since then, it is clear that allowing developers to make use of TfL data has proved a remarkable success, with 4,000-plus developers now registered, hundreds of apps available and millions of people using the services and able to trust the information they’re getting. One app alone has a million active users, Young said. It is currently working


with


the GLA on a project to


find out how the information released


“When we launched, the developers were crying out for anything – it could have been data of any quality, really.”


If official feeds and datastreams are not available,


many developers choose to


‘screenscrape’: their computers interact directly with the official website to pull the data from it. Young said: “That’s less good for us, because it’s not an efficient way of interacting with a website, and we’d rather differentiate the developer usage from the consumer usage, so we know what’s going on. There is a sense in which [data] suppliers who try to hold out against releasing data may find themselves inadvertently doing it through screenscraping.”


Creating wealth in London


Young said: “Our activities have been about getting as much data out there as possible, enabling these SMEs to create wealth in and around London, and to get our information out to the widest possible audience. We have around 8m people a month who use our online services, but we know that in addition to that, through the 4,000+ developers, that we’ve got


developed as a result of this. We’d rather the developer deal with that first call.


under the Open Data Policy is used, versus the costs of providing it.


‘Crying out for data’


Although the data is ‘public’ in many senses, since it is created and owned by a public body, TfL decided to allow developers to use the data commercially. They cannot, however, impersonate TfL in any way or use its branding.


Young said: “We were very keen to ensure customers of those services didn’t call us if they had a problem, especially now we’ve got millions of users on the apps that have been


He added that it would cost a lot of public money for TfL to try to develop innovative apps itself – so throwing it out to the private sector is a way of saving that money. That does mean though that except under special circumstances and where the market won’t or can’t provide it, TfL does not get involved in designing its own apps, as to do so would impede and undermine the developers it works with.


Open data is not just about working with developers, though – it is also about giving the public and interested parties like journalists and politicians access to data about TfL as a business, in line with the transparency agenda and Department for Communities & Local Government guidance.


“You can see that under the transparency link at the footer of every page of our website,” Young said, with TfL releasing information and data about its structure, staff responsibilities and budgets, and data about what it buys and the


contracts it signs. In the vanguard


“I don’t know of another authority in the country that’s as advanced as we are with this,” Young told us. “Across Europe even, there are very few who are anywhere near the developments we’ve made. We’re one of the leaders in this, and we’re working with colleagues in transport authorities across Europe to explain to them what we’re doing and to encourage them to work along similar lines. We see benefits in that for consumers, cutting across different transport authorities.”


There is also work at the EU and UK Government levels to push the benefits of open data.


Young concluded: “The more choice and reach of information we can get as a transport authority, the better it will be for our customers, the more informed they will be, the better choices they can make about their transport, and ultimately that’s a public benefit and why we’re in favour of it.”


www.tfl.gov.uk TELL US WHAT YOU THINK


rail technology magazine Dec/Jan 13 | 47


© TfL


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