trains

Opening up Data for a Mobile Future

An interview with Rahul Kumar about Catalogue, a new open data initiative supported by Transdev

Edited by Bianca Pick and Hélène Vuaroqueaux

As a proponent for open data, the transportation company Transdev and its partners are soon launching their new project ‘Catalogue’, an open source platform that gathers global transportation data for the improvement of mobility. In an interview with OuiShare Connector Antonin Leonard, Senior Vice President of Transdev Rahul Kumar explains the motivation behind this project and what he considers the future of public transportation. The interview is part of series that treat the subject of mobility for the upcoming Autonomy conference in October in Paris. 

Hi Rahul, you arrived in France a year ago to create the Digital Factory. Please tell us more about it and where you see Catalogue fitting into the several projects you currently oversee.

Rahul Kumar. Transdev at its core is a public transportation operator that cares about its passengers and the environmental benefits of public transportation. I was responsible for overseeing commercial development for Transdev in the US and though I love the operational-oriented side of the business, I knew that with the advent of new services like ridesharing, Uber and digital disruption, we needed to start doing things differently. Transdev offered me the opportunity to transform the company from the inside through The Digital Factory.

What is the Digital Factory?

R. K. Our job is to create globally-scalable disruptive projects which challenge the status quo. In some cases they even compete directly with Transdev services but ultimately these projects benefit the community and the mobility ecosystem in large.

Benefiting a larger ecosystem is the way forward to grow in the future?

R. K. Exactly. We’re at the point in the economy where it is no longer about ownership and winning,  but about leveraging assets to provide the best solution. By this I mean not only technical assets, but also a community of people and data. Combining these three in a particular way has a lot of value.

How do you work concretely on those three?

R. K. We are completely data agnostic, focusing on transport data to help us improve the mobility ecosystem. We are also pushing for open data across the world as it’s important that the data is not kept by one authority or group, but can be shared evenly among the masses.  

This is also why we have supported Catalogue. It contains data from all over the world. With tools that ensure the accuracy of uploaded data, producers (people who create the data) are informed immediately of errors which they can fix, while the community (a combination of developer’s, cities, and data enthusiasts) can trust that the uploaded data is correct. Catalogue has some very complex routines to check data. If for example I upload all the bus routes and there is an error it tells me “hi you have a problem here” and shows me what to fix. We also use the General Transit Feed Specification(GTFS) to ensure data is standardized.

In general it is easy for people to upload and download data which is free and in a compressed format. Catalogue is important as a data warehouse but it also enables social, beneficial, and commercial tools. Together, end users and developers can work on feedback and improvement: producers fix it, developers upload and the end users use it. Everybody is working for the benefit of better mobility.

 Catalogue by itself is important as a data warehouse but it’s also an enabler for new tools: social and beneficial tools, commercial tools.

So a third party can use and play with it. Is this enough to get attention?

R. K. Not entirely. Though Catalogue contains new ways to upload, create and confirm data, for it to really take off will require the help of the community and producers to create and build new applications and mobility services that Catalogue will enable. It’s what can be done with the data that in the end defines the market success.

Do you have an example of an open data repository that works well?

R. K. In Boston they opened all their data, (they didn’t have a digital development team or the resources to build an application) to see what would happen. So far it’s the only public agency where developers built an application based on the data that the city has opened. 

What has been the reception of the local authorities so far?

R. K. So far, very positive. They don’t necessarily share our values concerning data and tend to be hesitant. For them data is an output, like exhaust fumes at the end of a pipe. We see data as the fuel that makes the engine work or the oil that makes the pistons go up and down.

They see data as an output. It’s like exhaust fumes at the end of the pipe. We see data as the fuel that makes the engine work and the oil that makes the pistons go up and down

Do you think they understand the value of data?

R. K. Most of them do not. They don’t even know what to do with all the data they produce. In other sectors this is different. If we look at social media, Facebook for example has a statistical revenue per user which is around 4€/year, with people spending roughly 5 hours per week on Facebook.

Like this, public transportation and its users could be thought of very differently. On average people use public transportation 1 hour per day so why not ask ourselves: what can I do to make his or her life better? And how can they help us improve our service?

I am not necessarily speaking of revenue, but of data that passengers are generating.  They can give us disruption info, tweet about what is happening, share their sentiment with us or point out issues we may be overlooking. But so far, transportation agencies don’t value such data in the way they could.

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What about privacy?

R. K. Cell phone companies track where you are, all day, every day. Google even has a subsidiary called “sidewalk labs”, that is creating an app called Flow, using Waze and your personal Android data to predict parking spots and passengers movements in vehicles and buses. It’s not a question of privacy when it comes to the collective good.

Which companies do you expect to share their data?

R. K. Catalogue is starting with data from public transportation agencies like STIF in France. We already have data from New York and San Francisco but hope to soon also incorporate other cities. Understanding how the bus transportation works is not enough, we need to know how the city is designed in relation to the transportation network to then understand how people utilize both the city facilities and the transportation network.

What kind of data do the transportation agencies own?

R. K. They know how the trains run, where the bus stops are etc. Funnily, when looking at the statistics it’s not always clear which variable determines the rest of the data. Do people move because a city is built this way or is the city designed like this because the roads run this way? Are the establishments and retails built in certain locations because the people are there? Or vice versa?

Either way you need to combine all of these elements to truly harness the power of open data platforms. It’s not just the data itself, but about the actions you can take as a result of the data.

It’s not just the data itself, but about the actions you can take as a result of the data.

What kind of data do the cities own?

R. K. Information on future urban development, population centers, and other demographics that could help predict the user’s propensity towards one mode or the other.

What do you think of Uber opening the data of the city in Portland?

R. K. The question is what data they opened. The reason why Uber has a 68 billion dollar valuation is because they function as a technology platform that connects cars with people, not as a transportation company. In order for Uber to grow, they should stop thinking of themselves as a tech platform but more as an enabler for people to complete their journeys, with a social responsibility. 

See, public transportation in general is designed to be a monopoly. STIF is the only one which can run public transportation across neighborhood’s for example, and you know why? Because they receive subsidies, as it’s considered a social necessity.  

However, public transportation is not profitable, even in France. There could be 75 persons in the bus and at the end of the day it still cost more for the company to run that bus. So if a private company like Uber offers to replace public transportation, can we ensure they will not just focus on the profitable area, but also cater to necessary non profitable area? Probably not.

File illustration picture showing the logo of car-sharing service app Uber on a smartphone next to the picture of an official German taxi sign in Frankfurt, September 15, 2014. A Frankfurt court earlier this month instituted a temporary injunction against Uber from offering car-sharing services across Germany. San Francisco-based Uber, which allows users to summon taxi-like services on their smartphones, offers two main services, Uber, its classic low-cost, limousine pick-up service, and Uberpop, a newer ride-sharing service, which connects private drivers to passengers - an established practice in Germany that nonetheless operates in a legal grey area of rules governing commercial transportation. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach/Files (GERMANY - Tags: BUSINESS EMPLOYMENT CRIME LAW TRANSPORT)

What do you think about Helsinki’s new plan to eliminate car ownership?

R. K. I think it’s very ambitious, a concept of the future. It shows that people seek something simple with a monthly subscription.

Like Spotify in the music industry?

R. K. Exactly. The mix may be eclectic but the subscription remains the same every month. The concept is brilliant, but transport agencies who are still caught up in competitive behavior will probably be the last ones to accept it. However I think a system like this would encourage people to use more public transport. Have you ever used the bus in foreign country? It can be nearly impossible if you don’t know the system. Like this 70% of passengers don’t take the train from the beginning to the end stop, but travel in the middle. We should not forget that transportation is more often than not about information and also that one size doesn’t fit all.