TransportationCamp Chat with Kevin Webb

OpenPlans and friends are convening the third annual TransportationCamp DC on January 11, 2014, at George Mason University’s Arlington campus. If you haven’t already signed up, you are very welcome.  We’re reaching out to leaders and thinkers in the transportation and technology field, and asking them about what is interesting and important in the field right now. Check out previous conversations over on the TransportationCamp blog.

I spoke with Kevin Webb, principal of Conveyal, a consultancy specializing in open data and open source software for the transportation sector. Their work is very familiar to us at OpenPlans. Until last year Kevin was was working on OpenTripPlanner and other tools under the OpenPlans umbrella. Now, he and others are advancing open data ideas and developing new tools at Conveyal. I asked Kevin for the latest about Conveyal and what he’s most excited about.

Can you tell me a little bit about Conveyal and what you do?

We are a consultancy that builds open source software for transportation agencies and people interested in transportation information.

All of our work is built on top of both an open source software foundation‑‑software that’s shared between people without having to worry about licensing‑‑and also, perhaps more fundamentally, on open data‑‑data that’s released to the public without any restrictions or any impediments to making use of it‑‑which allows people to build a common infrastructure around transportation concepts and communication goals that are leveraged by the public, by the private sector, and by the government.

What’s something interesting or exciting that you’re working on right now?

The most interesting work, actually, is kind of a big shift in our work right now. It’s going from public information tools‑‑tools that are designed to help the general public navigate cities and transportation infrastructure‑‑to using that same data and the same tools to help people plan, and decision‑making or policy‑making around transportation.

What’s been really interesting is that the data that has been created largely to power these sorts of public tools‑‑like GTFS, which was created to power Google Transit and a variety of other systems that take advantage of it for the public‑‑that data is better than a lot of the data that was being created to manage policy and planning simulation and analysis, previously.

We’re seeing that the data that was created for the public purposes are actually surpassing this other data and allowing us to really rethink the way that we use information tools to drive these sorts of problems. That’s allowing us to expand the scope of what people can do with computer simulation and planning.

Transportation Camp is all about the intersection of technology and transportation. As you’re thinking about your work and the future of the field, what’s most interesting to you right now on the technology side?

It’s definitely related to that notion of using it for public planning purposes. What’s going on that’s actually really exciting is people are starting to realize that these data systems are actually fundamentally part of the infrastructure that’s being built as well.

They’ve often been seen as kind of a second‑order concern, where you’re primarily operating a bus service, and secondarily you’re publishing the schedule and telling people where to go.

We’re starting to realize that the information is actually really, fundamentally what’s driving a lot of this‑‑both from the public understanding and engagement purpose, so people can make use of it and make effective decisions, but also that we can understand and share information about this stuff in a way to help us coordinate activity‑‑is a really big change that’s happening right now.

We’re interested in it in a very specific case, which is modeling of transportation outcomes, but there’s lots of other ways in which the data is being used. We’re starting to see examples where governments‑‑like, for example in Brazil‑‑recently passed laws that actually require these data products to be created as part of service delivery by private operators that are operating franchise service. That allows them to have an oversight mechanism into what’s going on, in terms of performance review and keeping track of things; it’s leveraging a standard.

We’re seeing other examples of countries exploring that as a way to coordinate activity. That’s a very big change, to see that the data is actually a fundamental part of both an oversight structure and an operational structure, and it’s really not something you can just do as a nice‑to‑have. It’s actually fundamentally part of what people are responsible for delivering.

That opens up lots of doors for public interaction with the systems, but also for oversight and improvement of how they operate.

It’s something that’s really only been realized in the last couple of years, where people are starting to see that opportunity and really require that it’s something that‑‑at least in the U.S. context; there’s other parts of the world where perhaps it’s been thought about a bit longer‑‑but the open standards has really realized that there’s a tremendous benefit for doing this in a way that everyone agrees on.

You talk about that being something that other countries are doing‑‑Brazil is doing –in the U.S. we’re starting to get into it, maybe municipality by municipality or state by state. Is that being led by progressive transit systems, or do you see larger policy forces at work, or are they going to be at work? Where are we on that spectrum of policy and regulations?

It really depends on where you are in the world, how that question gets answered. It’s historically been a very bottom‑up approach, at least in the U.S. context, that’s led to this. There’s been innovation happening, in the private sector largely, that progressive trans agencies adopt and say, “This is important to us and our mission. We’re going to make an effort to make it happen.” But it’s very much an individual decision of an agency or locality, to drive that.

What we’ve started to see over the last two years now is people who are interested in coordinating activity at a larger level‑‑either a regional level or at a national level in some countries‑‑realizing that these sort of data products and platforms are enabling them to rethink the way that they manage these sorts of things to drive policy.

That’s actually happening now. They’re saying, “Let’s actually formalize this, and stop making this an ad hoc, bottom‑up thing that’s happening, but actually make it fundamentally part of how we operate these services and create laws about that, or create infrastructure that supports that.”

Unfortunately, the countries that I’m thinking of do not include the U.S.. To some degree there’s been more movement on this in Europe, but it’s also a bit complicated there because they’re already a bit farther ahead and have their own ideas about how to do it, which aren’t always‑‑or have not historically been‑‑related to open data.

But in the U.S. the really unfortunate thing is that there’s been a kind of anti‑leadership, in a sense, from the federal side on this, where there’s been a real unwillingness to see the value that’s been developed by these more ad hoc processes.

People who were in policy positions wanted to do something that they felt in control of, and they saw this ad hoc process as being counter to some of the longer‑term things they’ve been thinking about, where they saw ITS and transportation information systems going, and they really neglected the opportunity that’s there, or the role that they could play in shaping the opportunity.

It’s starting to shift now, but unfortunately the fear of allowing a bottom‑up process to then become something that’s formalized has held back people’s willingness to participate, at least here. That’s slowly changing, but it’s been very frustrating to see how other countries have embraced it and said, “This is fantastic. We’re really glad to see the progress that’s being made. Let’s formalize this and push this forward.”

The leadership in the U.S. has been a bit more conservative, in the sense of saying that this is not the vision they had particularly laid out, and they weren’t going to recognize the value that’s been created by the ad hoc work.

That’s something all of us in the community are working to change, but it’s been a long process.

Is this what you want to talk about at Transportation Camp? What are some of the sessions you want to see?

It’s certainly one of the things I want to talk about. We have an opportunity every year to come to DC as a community of people interested in this stuff and really have a dialogue about things that matter, not just at a local level or for individual communities across the country, but actually talk about it from a national policy perspective, and some of those people are in the room when we do this.

Willingness to have an open dialogue about how what’s gone on in DC has not been at the center of what’s driven this forward, and actually in some cases has held it back, is something that we need to discuss. We’re certainly interested in having a dialogue about the way that policy at the federal level can shape these sorts of things or support these sorts of things. That’s an important one to have.

The other is also to start looking at the outcome side of this and what we can do once we have it in place, because the truth is that those support structures are helpful and important to getting everybody on board, but it’s already moving in this direction, regardless, so our work is to focus already on…let’s assume that we just move beyond this discussion about what’s the appropriate standard to use, and just say, “Well, we’ve got data and we have things we want to accomplish. Let’s start talking about what we want to do.”

That’s where we are as a group, right now; very much focused on the analysis tools and actually building a multi‑stakeholder consortium around analysis tools that lets us start to get many different localities that are starting to work on these together, and using those data in new ways.

That’s been something that’s been really exciting to see over the last year or so; that community that’s starting to gel around very specific questions. We’re doing work now with members of it, but we want to make sure the dialogue is open and inclusive, so that people who are interested in adopting these sorts of questions and conversations in their local community understand what’s going on with other players, and willing to coordinate their activity.

For people who haven’t been to Transportation Camp before, what advice would you have for them, coming to their first one?

Bring something you care about to share. The most important part of it is that everyone shows up with ideas and things that they are passionate about, and puts them out there.

It’s not enough just to expect that you’re going to hear interesting things. You certainly are, but it’s also about wanting to bring stuff to give back. Everyone really appreciates that, and people realizing that there’s no one thing that needs to be discussed. It might be a different perspective on things than you might expect to be interesting, but it’s still valuable to have the variety of views there.

People, even from outside the technology community or outside the traditional norms of transportation, still have a lot to offer in terms of helping shape the conversation.

(This interview has been edited for clarity and length.)