First publishedin ITS International
In public transportation, open data enhances the work of the tech sector, allowing innovators to find ingenious ways to use the data public transit agencies provide
Public transit agencies create a lot of data – but using it constructively to solve transportation issues has been a problem. Ben Winokur and Luke Segars think they have the answer: greater openness
Today, more people are connected through smartphones than ever before - and they’re using them for more than texting and calling. People are searching for jobs on their devices, dating, shopping and even managing their finances. But Forbes reports that only a select few companies leverage all the technology at their fingertips to enable a better customer experience. Progress has been even more sluggish for local governments around the country.
Technology changes at lightning speed, but the government procurement process is not designed to be flexible or to adapt quickly. It is instead designed to select stable solutions that address the needs of the city, mitigate risks and ensure the integrity of the vendor selection process; these goals don’t leave much room for cities to deploy new and innovative technology. As a result, cities often fall victim to vendor lock-in, which decreases the incentives for existing vendors to innovate, and means that cities end up behind in the implementation of technology. As cities and agencies become increasingly reliant on technology to deliver a better experience to their citizens, it has become more important that they take a more open approach to providing digital services. This approach will ensure that they can build upon their existing technology stack, remain flexible enough to add new innovative technologies in the future, and maintain digital security, integrity and control.
Let’s take, for example, a story in The New York Times from earlier this year. “This Start-Up Says It Wants to Fight Poverty. A Food Stamp Giant Is Blocking It” highlights an inventive idea by app company Propel, which is seeking to address poverty with technology. The app allows food stamp recipients to access their accounts to determine how much they have left to spend, rather than hold onto paper receipts or call an 800 number for that same information. Unfortunately, the app has become unavailable in some US states due to a block by a government contractor that manages food stamp networks. Writer Steve Lohr said: “[The] conflict offers a textbook case of a digital newcomer running into resistance from the old order. The twist is that the newcomer said it did not want to destroy the incumbent but instead build atop it to do good for underserved populations, as well as build a business for itself.”
This scenario is a perfect example of how existing technology procurement allows vendors to suppress innovation to the detriment of both citizens and the government. Multi-year contracts for specific solutions provide minimal incentives for vendors to keep pace, hindering the possibility for fresh ideas and products to serve cities and their communities. Alternatively, an open platform would allow for technology companies to layer new technology onto existing options, improving the quality of government services. This kind of permissionless innovation has been a key to fast-moving developments in software and offers a viable path for governments looking to keep pace.
When designing a system there are certain problems best solved through competition and others that benefit from stability. For instance, when a city is building a road it is designed as a public utility that can be used by anyone. What’s accounted for are the road’s durability, location, and the number and width of lanes. It would be unreasonable, even counterproductive, to identify the make and model of vehicles that could use the road during procurement.
In the realm of public transportation, open data enhances the work of the tech sector - breaking down the traditional barriers that may prevent app developers, researchers, transit fans and others to find ingenious ways to use the data public transit agencies provide. According to the American Public Transportation Association, “The products created using public transit open data inform transit users about services and empowers them to make better decisions about which public transit services to use and when. … The experience of the MBTA [Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority] in the Boston area shows that apps created using open data can even increase public transit ridership.” Open access to data allows cities to crowdsource discovery, which leads to more dynamic cities driven by innovation.
Cities have an advantage because they are uniquely positioned for data collection, and the data they collect can help them make informed decisions about the future. Stephen Goldsmith, director of Data-Smart City Solutions, an initiative by the Ash Center at Harvard Kennedy School, suggests that in order to get to this point cities must collect ‘useable data’ that can be shared with a wider audience so the number and types of uses continue to expand. “Simply counting the number of released data sets as a performance accomplishment misses the point,” said Goldsmith. “It’s the production of usable data, along with the essential metadata to tie it together…CDOs [chief data officers] call for governments to incorporate well-designed open data portals, with mobile-friendly access, that allow for chats and include guides, dashboards and social media communication. And they advocate making geospatial data, which they say has been an underdeveloped and undervalued asset,” integral to open data platforms.
Cities have the ability to make data available to anyone that wants access. Services can be built that leverage the data and make it more impactful, and a platform built with the right controls prepares the city to welcome creative and impactful solutions without increasing the burden on the city itself. Refocusing requests for proposals (RFPs) on a city’s challenges rather than the specs of vendor solutions will produce better outcomes by zoning in on the ‘why’ they’re procuring rather than ‘what’ they’re procuring for it.
The step beyond shared data is shared services; digital infrastructure can define and share consistent rules and functionality that can be accessed and implemented by any consumer. Considering parking services as an example, everyone who has access to the city’s infrastructure could look up parking rates, rules and potentially the availability across the city. This central service provides consistent and stable infrastructure, controlled and managed by the government, to power innovative citizen-facing technology solutions, which eliminates the risk of presenting incorrect, incomplete or out-of-date information to users. Instead of designing a solution for today’s problem, a platform-based approach provides publicly accessible tools to adapt as the problems change. Overall, this can decrease complexity and co-ordination costs for the city while actually increasing the quality of specific solutions for citizens.
Without a doubt, cities are in a difficult position between needing to manage risks and innovate quickly to serve citizens. Goldsmith said city officials “face difficult challenges as they begin to weave a digital fabric through their streets and buildings”. When determining the complexities in what parts of infrastructure should be digitally interwoven, cities must consider liability issues, private sector access and balanced fairness for underserved communities. Procuring for platforms and digital infrastructure provides a mechanism for ensuring consistency and stability while encouraging permissionless innovation in how cities interact with their constituents. Ultimately, multi-year procurement processes are not a good match for specific solutions, which are improving more quickly every day; platforms provide an alternative that allow cities to standardise what matters without requiring them to make every decision themselves. This provides a more scalable, cost-effective, and future-proof model for embracing innovation.