Big data innovations in transport coming along the track

Toni Sekinah, research analyst and features editor, DataIQ

The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Data Analytics, chaired by MP Daniel Zeichner, convened a panel drawn from the public and private sector to share their perspectives on the opportunities and challenges of data and transport.

Eman Martin-Vignerte, director of government affairs at Bosch, said that the industries her company operates in - engineering and electronics - have been disrupted by big data which can be beneficially harnessed to solve or address problems such as population growth in urban centres. She said: “Putting data information and options in the hands of the travelling public and being more user-centric in our approach has been beneficial to many cities.” This is because it allows for better use of fixed resources and more efficient movement around the urban space.

Tube platform with a waiting commuter on the platform

Lauren Sager-Weinstein, chief data officer at Transport for London, explained that TfL has been opening up data "to transform services and improve the customer experience". She said this has involved giving data to the customer as well as working with the developer community on how best to present information about travelling.

Martin-Vignerte added that opening up live and static data sets for public consumption can be very cost-effective in comparison to building new physical infrastructure.

“I’m sure there are people with far better ideas than us, but access to our information just isn’t there.”

Stephen Canning, cabinet member for data at Essex County Council, stated that he is also in favour of open data as a tool because unobtainable data is something that concerns him. “Outside of local government, I’m sure there are people with far better ideas than us, but access to our information just isn’t there,” he said. While he certainly sees the benefits of opening up data as a way to solve transport problems, he worries that the local authority will incur the huge costs of maintaining those systems.

Martin-Vignerte and Sager-Weinstein were also in agreement about the benefit of big data for predictive maintenance and planning closures and refurbishments in the best way. “It can help determine routes where more public transport may be beneficial in an effort to reduce traffic pollution and provide insight for business if they want to set up in a certain place,” said Martin-Vignerte.

The chief data officer of TfL said that her organisation uses data to help it understand the transport network, thus providing the most efficient transport services. “When we consider making short-term changes and planning for long-term changes, that’s where we are thinking about how we understand demand on our network and patterns in a much more focused and granular way,” she said. Once the data has been analysed, TfL then thinks about the best way of allocating its fixed resources.

Martin-Vignerte said that big data can help cities to benefit from smarter city planning and thus increase productivity. This is very much in-line with the thinking of Canning, who sees data as being able to optimise the use of on-demand transport, as well as improving the flow of traffic, allowing freight vehicles to move more easily throughout the county. The former strategy would increase wellbeing among the population while the latter would increase the productivity of haulage and freight companies.

“If we can use data to predict when people are using our buses better, there are huge opportunities."

“For me the exciting part is how we can unlock rural areas,” said Canning. There are huge rural populations in Essex, but in some areas it is not financially feasible to continue to sustaining bus services. In those places it costs the council £6- £7 to subsidise each journey, in comparison with £2 for each journey taken in an urban area. “If we can use data to predict when they are using our buses better, there are huge opportunities,” he said.

Canning is concerned about siloed data, with each council or local authority having their own data sets. The utility of these could be magnified if they were all joined up. “What worries me is if suddenly we all have data sets that won’t talk to each other and across the country we’ve got great huge ideas happening and we are addressing these challenges, but we are no closer to having a joined up national data infrastructure,” he said.

Canning notd that, in an effort to solve this, Essex is developing a “data supermarket.” He explained that his county is trying to get all of its data, along with that of other local organisations, businesses, public and private sector across the country, on to one platform and allow anyone to buy or sell data.

Tower Bridge London with streaking headlights long exposureThis is an example of government providing a neutral space for data to be shared and exchanged, an idea that Eifion Jenkins, data programme director at Transport Systems Catapult, put forward.

“We see a lot of that at the moment - TfL and local authorities are starting to release data.”

Jenkins explained that his organisation is looking at data as infrastructure and the role of government in relation to that infrastructure. One role government can play is that of enabler, by providing a marketplace or a neutral space. Another other possible role is government as a data provider.

“We see a lot of that at the moment - TfL and local authorities are starting to release data,” he said. He added that government can also serve as a researcher, uncovering answers to new questions raised by data and also as a smart system, an approach taken by cities like Dubai.

Jenkins also explained that the role of Transport Systems Catapult is to help UK businesses move technology into industry, to build the capability and to build businesses. His organisation published a report in April 2017 which concluded that data will help drive and enable new business models with new products and services. He said: “The UK has a significant duty right now to look at the opportunities in those areas.”

"There is less discussion about the huge potential we have with data and the worry that people have about closed algorithms."

It is clear that discussion of the challenges and opportunities that are presented by big data in transport needs to continue - no doubt the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Data Analtyics will play a part in facilitating those discussions. Zeichner said that awareness about data and analytics in general needs to be raised among his peers.

“There’s lots of discussion about Leveson, but much less about some of the issues around the balance we strike between the huge potential we have with data and the worry that people have about closed algorithms and how we deal with them,” he said. Going forward, Sager-Weinstein said it is important that TfL looks to the future and think about how to provide the London of the tomorrow with reliable transport services that are safe and efficient.

Canning added that another question that needs to be addressed is ownership of the data. Zeichner also said that attention must be drawn to the balance between usefulness and privacy. “There are clearly many good possible uses of big data in transport, it needs to be considered whether they are all socially useful benefits or whether some are annoying and intrusive.,” he concluded.