Now is the time on transit when we dance!

We were not in Soho anymore. There was no pizza, no sticker-covered Macs, and most strikingly, no day jobs. Everyone in the room actually worked in the field of transit information systems, specifically on the design of user interfaces for real time trip planning. The room was packed. The clothes were black. Designer eyeglasses and shaved heads were in abundance. This could have been an architecture firm, or seeing as we were in central Europe, an episode of Sprockets.

The International Institute for Information Design’s 5th Annual Expert Forum on Traffic and Transport was no open transit data meet-up. The theme this year was real time information in multimodal transport networks, which meant that OpenPlans was going to be there in force (I went with lead OpenTripPlanner Engineer David Turner), and with the exception of some Googlers we knew would be there, and Brian Ferris from OneBusAway, we fully expected to be among the only people in the room.

Wrong. We all know that Europe is much more heavily invested in public transit than the US, but we didn’t know that Europe was also much more heavily invested in the software and communications side of transit. In Vienna we saw excellent  (proprietary) journey planning software (as they call it over there), met brilliant people, and listened to a crowd of at least 60 people opine and inquire passionately about the issues we at OpenPlans care so deeply about and that few transit agencies and software vendors in the US focus on sufficiently.

We considered questions such as when real time data really matters and when it doesn’t improve the customer experience; the challenge of creating general-purpose apps for the public while also meeting the needs of specific groups; and the desire to create innovative information services within the limits of available technology.

One important topic, however, was barely discussed: Openness. When asked about releasing their data to the public, several agencies ducked the question, or gave answers we have long been familiar with here in the US – “We can’t control the accuracy of the data if others publish it” or “It is expensive to publish data and work with third parties”. Off the record, we learned from some participants that many transit providers in Europe are privately operated and in the EU, there would be opportunities for one operator to bid for another operator’s contract if they could use the schedule data to analyze service, performance, or value. This makes transit authorities even more reluctant to open up.

There is also a general skepticism of the value of working with Google, the prime driver of transit data openness in the US, and little pressure coming from the public to force transit authorities to publish on Google Maps. My theory on the latter issue is that since Europe has for years had adequate or even good transit information and maps, the public doesn’t feel the acute need for improvement. In the US, very few transit authorities have up to date interactive maps or trip planners, and agencies are generally comfortable being a decade or so behind the rest of the world on IT because they are monopolies and believe their primary ridership is too poor or too old to use online information. This has driven the public in the US to press agencies to publish GTFS so they can get that information on Google Maps. This effect seems to be making its way to Europe – Google identifies over 40 providers who have produced GTFS – but in general Europe is almost as far behind on open transit data as the US is on high-speed rail.

What does that mean for OpenTripPlanner and other transit apps that depend on open data formats? For starters, Europe is a generalization. In Spain, which has embraced open source, there are at least two OTP deployments live today. Spain may end up leading the next wave of transit information innovation as its authorities open their data and its engineers use open source tools to make that data useful to the public. We expect other countries will follow.

OpenPlans is looking forward to doing more business in Europe and we hope to learn some moves from our European counterparts, and perhaps teach them a few turns ourselves.

Now, we dance!