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Open data drives innovation for rail passengers operators

CEE rail operators are reluctant to setting open data platforms, and the consequences are a limited number of options for passengers when searching for information about multi-modal travel, for purchasing train tickets or for seeing real-time information. Among the rail operators approached, HZPP will start providing access to their database for third parties as part of a project to be implementation by the end of the year. SBB is among the railway operators which provides developers with access to relevant and high-quality SBB data. “Although SBB is sacrificing some of its competitive edge by disclosing data, it gets more out than it puts in.” Peter is responsible for the new open data platform for public transport in Switzerland. After all, if innovative developments with tangible benefits for our customers are also going to make Swiss public transport more attractive, then everyone stands to gain: customers, developers and the whole public transport sector”, says Peter Herzog, who is responsible for the new open data platform for public transport in Switzerland.

vasile_500pxVasile Cotovanu is the author of the “SwissTrains” railway map, among the first animated public transport maps on the web. He also developed one of the few apps on providing information on Romania’s railway stations and timetables.

How difficult is access to data if we are to compare Romania & Switzerland?

Today it is becoming easier, both countries provide open data sets that can be used to create applications.When I started the projects related to public transport back in 2006, the data was not available off-the-shelf so I had to write a program that retrieved data from the websites of the two organisations (sbb.ch and infofer.ro) and then convert it to a standard format, GTFS which is used by public transport operators: https://developers.google.com/transit/gtfs/ Even so, it was only textual data (timetables), in order to view the stations and routes you need a set of data and graphics (with lines and dots). Also this data was not “open” or operators had them in a proprietary format and the OSM (Open StreetMap) was not so developed, so the only solution was to manually digitize (draw lines and dots manual) on raster maps that existed at the time.

With these two sets of data (text and graphics) I launched in 2007 these two projects related to rail transport:
– For Switzerland – swisstrains which is now accessible to http://maps.vasile.ch/transit-sbb/
– For Romania – http://cfr.webgis.ro (my former site in Romania)
Both applications (and other regions) use the same source code which is open on Github
https://github.com/vasile/transit-map

Switzerland offers data sets in various formats (even GTFS), including a set of APIs and services for realtime data (which include delays). Romania has a single set of data, in proprietary format but readable (XML). Therefore I have published an open-source program that converts XML in GTFS https://github.com/vasile/data.gov.ro-gtfs-exporter.; in addition, Romania has no real-time data set available.

How complicated is it to set bases of an open data platform and could you estimate what costs it would involve?

There are two costs related to setting open data platforms, if we are to consider a new operator which uses the same methods as in 2006 (taking public data in tables or online timetables, plus manual digitization or OSM) would be two categories of costs:
– Costs related to programmers team that works on converting data from the proprietary format (which can be CSV, Excel, database) in a standard format (GTFS)
– Costs related to the publishing and hosting data, plus regular updates. These costs vary, the procedure can be delegated to third parties, but these costs are generally much lower compared with data conversion which involves interaction with transport company.

What are the benefits of developing open data platforms for a railway undertaking?

The above mentioned platforms have different Showcase type categories, in which applications that already use open data sets are presented. The main beneficiary is the user that makes use of a range of applications depending on needs, e.g. travel planning in advance, buying tickets or viewing arrivals and departures in real-time. There is no swiss-army-knife type of application, to have all these functionalities.

The rail operator has the support of the community for feedback and sometimes open-source code to develop and maintain current applications. Sometimes it organizes Hackatoane on these issues and very interesting ideas come later e.g. https://www.mindboxberlin.com/index.php/3rdhackathon.html

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