National Academies Find That Open Data is a No-Brainer for Transit Agencies

[quote_right][feature_box title=”TDM TAKEAWAY” title_color=”fff” header_color=”369″]Open data is already improving public transportation in some places, and it has the power to transform the industry worldwide.[/feature_box][/quote_right]

While transit agencies have long been measuring their performance based on the data they keep, a new world of “open data” is providing the opportunity for anyone to analyze and visualize performance in ways that have almost never been possible.

The National Academies – which advises Congress on science, engineering, and medicine – has now chimed in with a new report finding that open data has the potential to transform transit.

The potential for transformation is confirmed through a literature review and detailed survey responses from 67 transit agencies around the world.

National Academies

Report from the Transportation Research Board of the National Academies (PDF)

The survey found that the top five overall benefits of open transit data were:

  1. Increased awareness of services
  2. Empowered customers
  3. Encouraged innovation outside of the agency
  4. Improved the perception of openness and transparency of agencies, and
  5. Provided opportunities for private businesses.

Perhaps the most remarkable impacts are encouraging and enabling innovation both within agencies and in the private sector, improving the public perception and image of transit, and creating a new ecosystem of private entrepreneurs. These impacts are remarkable because prior to the advent of open data, innovation was not typically in the transit vernacular, transit did not necessarily use data to improve their perception or image, and there were no entrepreneurs looking at or using transit data as a business.

Still, providing open data has its challenges, the most prevalent being:

  • Resources and organizational issues
  • Data quality and timeliness issues
  • Standards and formatting issues
  • Marketing issues relating to making the open data known and addressing branding issues, and
  • Technical issues.

The major factors that lead to a successful open data program are:

  • Obtaining and maintaining management-level support for such a program
  • Recognizing the need for the appropriate level of resources required to provide and maintain open data
  • Establishing ways to monitor data accuracy, timeliness, reliability, quality, usage, and maintenance
  • Creating and maintaining licensing or registration, and
  • Having an ongoing dialogue with both developers and customers, a practice shown to increase the value of the data and products that are based on the data.

There are four case studies in the report that illuminate how the transit industry is transforming.

One example notes the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s use of its own open data to measure performance in real-time. The agency is focused on putting customers first by measuring things like passenger waits, passenger travel time, and passenger delays. While this analysis might have been possible prior to the MBTA opening its data, it would have been extremely time consuming. It is less time-consuming now because relevant information is automatically generated by technology (such as its automatic vehicle-location system) and processed to be provided internally and to the public.

Conducting this type of analysis will assist in understanding operations in real-time and developing strategies to address problems in real-time. The MBTA never had the capability to look at real-time data about operations as deeply as it can now due to its open data.

Photo by Metropolitan Transit Authority of the State of New York

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