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UK open (transit) data model worth copying

January 28th, 2010

Here in Toronto, we’ve only 1 transit agency, the YRT, sharing data, but sadly unlike Toronto, York Region has no plans (despite a data sharing symposium) to open its mapping data–crucial to build a home-grown competitor to Google Maps’ transit info, including offline map support on iPod Touch or iPad. And while the UK is a bit slow with its map data, at least it will ALSO open its postal code data on April 2010, unlike Canada Post, where postal codes were even removed from Toronto’s datasets. UK data is much more complete and comprehensive than even the US. To quote Tim Berners-Lee on the UK site’s launch: “Making public data available for re-use is about increasing accountability and transparency and letting people create new, innovative ways of using it.”

To that end, the UK is even thinking of buying or sponsoring projects made from its data– why can’t other organizations and governments adopt this kind of forward-looking way of thinking. I’m not suggesting that the government can’t make these connections itself–it should–but that rather it should allow for others to contribute also. Think of it as having volunteers working on something that you also pay select people to do, because volunteers still have to make a living. At the same time, you don’t want to lose people because you’re ignoring them, and opening the data is the easiest way to remain inclusive to all possibilities.

I was inspired to write this post as I read the following emails from Roger Slevin to the gtfs-changes group and felt I had to share this info here, to show how differently things can work elsewhere. (Emphasis mine)

Let me give you more context of the situation in Great Britain. There are three regional information systems currently contributing schedule data to Google Transit – and between us we cover about 500 different operators within the four data feeds that we supply each week – these comprise coordinated and de-duplicated sets of data. As already mentioned, Google also receives a weekly update of the details of every one of c350,000 public transport stops and stations across Britain – each with a unique reference.

GTFS is not used in the UK for anything other than supplying Google Transit because we have more robust and detailed protocols for transferring data between local information systems – so our concerns are about how the data, which meets the specifications of being coordinates, with unique references, etc across multiple agencies, still cannot be processed robustly into Google Transit … and, unless things have changed very recently, still show multiple stop icons at some locations for what is a single physical stop point.

Roger continues later on in the thread:

Oh dear – that is very frustrating, as we have a national standard stopID which is available from both the stops.txt file that you get for national data in Great Britian and is then used in all of the schedule feeds. We have a problem right now that an area which has just done a major tidy up of stop data, and amended (often in a very minor way) the name of a stop – change of punctuation, even … has lost the display of next departures from those stops …. even though their unique references remain unchanged. Given that you are not importing stop data more than three or four times a year – when it is continually changing day by day – this is a serious problem and undermines the credibility of what is being offered to the public. I hope you can be persuaded that it is worthwhile using unique ID values where they are available to ensure that matching happens, whether or not the name field is precisely the same.

Regardless of the Google Maps issue, where Google updates only 3-4 times a year, I love that their data is even more accurate than that, and that it’s national! Consider if Ontario sponsored such a project for transportation across Ontario, from bus to rail to transit of all types. More than likely that would show why EFA by mdv is used more in Europe and the crummy-by-comparison Trapeze is used here in North America. They’re more inclusive-thinking in Europe for these kinds of solutions probably because they’re more densely populated areas and less car-focused compared to North America. Still the idea of the TTC offering weekly updates or with Metrolinx doing a stop-recount for an area– wow, imagine the possibilities.

Too bad they’re unlikely to become reality without a major push from news media and individuals. I wonder if I can organize such a thing…?

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