Changing roles in data collection for traffic management

Transport for Greater Manchester's David Hytch discusses the evolving roles of the public and private sector in managing and disseminating data. Data services for traffic management were once the sole preserve of public sector organisations, they being uniquely placed and equipped for the work involved. Now, though, this is changing. There is even a presumption in some countries that the private sector will take a greater, if not actually a lead, role in the provision of information for transport management
Classification & Data Collection / January 23, 2012
Transport for Greater Manchester serves the second-most populous metropolitan area
Manchester is home to MediaCityUK, a future European hub for digital innovation, and Transport for Greater Manchester has taken a very open approach to data release says information systems director David Hytch

Transport for Greater Manchester's David Hytch discusses the evolving roles of the public and private sector in managing and disseminating data

Data services for traffic management were once the sole preserve of public sector organisations, they being uniquely placed and equipped for the work involved. Now, though, this is changing. There is even a presumption in some countries that the private sector will take a greater, if not actually a lead, role in the provision of information for transport management and traveller information services.

Another, more historical presumption is that public sector agencies will continue to provide the data which they collect and collate to private sector organisations on a free-of-charge basis. The latter can then add value, using open-source data to create niche or bespoke information services and in doing so turn a profit.

But is this business model sustainable or even desirable? Is it right or fair, for instance, that public sector agencies should be allowed to charge for the information they provide, and in so doing take a share of the wealth? Indeed, with many public authorities struggling to find funds, might it not actually be desirable for them to do so and so address some of the shortfalls they currently face?

Challenging traditions

817 Transport for Greater Manchester (TfGM) serves the second-most populous metropolitan area (it has a population of 2.5 million) in the UK. David Hytch is the organisation's information systems director.

The break down of traditional responsibilities and barriers in terms of who collects, collates and distributes data for transport management purposes means there is a debate to be had, he says; one which considers both what organisations want to achieve for the public and their statutory obligations.

TfGM has taken a very open approach to data release, says Hytch.

"That's driven by two things: that we're a publicly funded body and so the public has a right to see a return on its investment; and because data trapped in a hard drive somewhere has no intrinsic value unless it's actually being used to do something. So, the need to utilise data is recognised and the current economic situation is already forcing the public sector to be more innovative."
That has led to a discussion of new business models, what they might lead to and whether they are indeed at all workable or legal.


"Traditionally, if I wanted to create for instance a travel information service which is of value to the public I'd have to come up with a proposal, put together a business case, win a funding from outside agencies such as the local authority or central government and then deliver it. Now, in a situation where there are no funding streams available, or where funding streams are fewer and more tightly constrained, I have to look at what other legitimate means I have at my disposal with which to make new things happen.

"By way of example, and working with 86 Logica and 647 Vix Technology, TfGM has recently completed an 18-month programme match-funded by the UK's Technology Strategy Board which designed, developed and demonstrated an 'Informed Personal Traveller' application for smart phones.

A virtual travel planning assistant service for public transport passengers operating across multiple modes (buses, trains and trams), the online virtual travel assistant successfully delivered personalised, contextaware travel service information for travellers in a pilot area, both before and during their journeys. The service itself features a number of major innovations in personal journey management including real-time service updates and the opportunity to re-plan, based on the latest information to hand, where connections are likely to be missed as a result of service disruption. Following a successful trial, the next step is to get the app ready for the market. Further funding will be sought to make that happen.

Together with MX Data, TfGM has also developed an app for iPhones, Blackberrys, and other smart phones which provides information on Metrolink, Manchester's tram network. Although at the moment it does not contain real-time information it does provide a useful map and information on current services overall, together with some information about stations and route planning."We provided the data and covered a small amount of the development costs, and would recover the investment through advertisements with the app itself. The new app was felt to be core to what TfGM is set up to do and if we achieve even a small increase in the number of people using public transport services our investment will be repaid. The app is available for free download and so far about 10,000 downloads have taken place," says Hytch.

 Working with private-sector partners, TfGM has recently developed a number of smart phone apps which offer travellers information on local services.

Commercial considerations

Nevertheless, he is wary of endorsing fully the idea that public sector bodies should be able to make a commercial return on data they collect and distribute.

"Part of the problem is the perception that data has commercial value. Some will have. But we still have to start from the point that we have an obligation to make information publicly available through bus stops, websites and so on.

"When it comes to people taking the data we provide and making it more useful, and whether we as a public sector organisation could have done the same, it's perfectly possible that we might have been able to. In reality, though, it's about people having the wit to create things." In that, Hytch makes a crucial point: it is wholly unrealistic to presume that the public sector will conceptualise all transport-related apps that could possibly be of use, much less implement them.


Then there is the issue of revenue collection: "The jointly developed smart phone app perhaps provides an embryonic example of how we might collect the money from service provision and it's perceivable that as and when the satnav people develop services for our local area we could become a part of the value chain.

"It's not a case of 'never' but 'how'. We put out fixed infrastructure information at present. As we move to real-time services, there might be a way of doing this. So, for instance, if information is historical - say, over 15 minutes old - it might be provided free. If it's real-time, it might become part of a premium, charged-for service."

Non-commercial factors

"However, any debate over revenues also has to include public sector organisations' obligation, to varying degrees, to help create and evolve economic opportunity. There are around 12,000 software developers in the Greater Manchester area and we are home to MediaCityUK - a future European hub for digital innovation, for instance. I could never employ all of those. I can, though, create opportunities for them. If I can gain interest in the local developer community then that puts something back into the local economy as a whole - something which could then have application elsewhere geographically. I can't restrict data access to only those in the Greater Manchester area, that would lay us open to action under anticompetition laws, but it does make sense for public bodies to help local businesses where they can.

"The whole area needs a greater level of discussion. We need to move away from a 'data anarchist' model of 'I have to know, tell me now' and take a more considered view. We need to consider, in the first instance, exactly which data we're talking about and how to maintain or update it. Not too long after that, as more data is released, we also have to think more about maintaining its integrity.

"The number of organisations involved in this debate is also going to increase, which will add further complication. So do we just let things happen or do we look to see where we can proactively work to drive things in a concerted manner?"

The slow move to digital

With many roadside devices now existing in the IP domain and Ethernet reigning supreme, one could be forgiven for thinking that the data network standardisation / interoperability issue is well on the way to being solved. Not so, according to Sara Bullock, executive international sales and marketing director with 558 AMG Systems: with many companies moving away from being simple box-shifters and looking to establish themselves as systems integrators there is a largely unheeded problem with proprietary encoders, she says

AMG positions itself as a specialist transmissions provider, offering UTP, Ethernet and wireless network solutions to the security and transportation sectors. In line with many customers' moves towards HD video, the company offers SDI capabilities, as well as hybrids which combine analogue and digital in the same network.

"Ethernet's not the issue. It is in fact pretty standard," Bullock says. "The issue is intersupplier - there are a lot of different compression standards just in CCTV, for instance, and we're seeing suppliers dragging their feet when it comes to standardisation just so that they can maintain market share.

"A lack of comfort and familiarity with IP-based systems among customers means that they're often only too happy to have someone else take care of implementing a system for them. The problem then arises that they think they're getting an 'open-architecture platform' when in fact they're not."

Customer pressure is needed to force change, she feels.

"We're reverting to the situation we used to have with older, analogue systems where there are tailored products for pretty much each new project. Going forward, manufacturers need to be much more vigilant when supplying APIs [Application Programming Interfaces] to projects.

Economic downturn has combined with a lack of product awareness to restrict IP's growth, Bullock continues.

"If you'd asked me 10 years ago what the future would look like in five years' time, I'd have said we'd be all-IP. And yet we're still seeing analogue extensions to existing networks. New installations tend to be more IP and we're seeing greater uptake in developing markets. A lot of projects have started by specifying IP only to not end up getting there. Certain installation environments are still not suitable for 'IP' technology. Budgets are also reducing expectations at present.

"We're starting to see full-bandwidth video transmission come through, courtesy of HD and Ethernet backbones, but the coming issue is megapixel cameras. Current Ethernet infrastructures won't be able to cope with these and neither will recording capacity; we're going to have to have much bigger hard drives. On the transmission side we're seeing the development of large-bandwidth switches but Ethernet has a long way to go before being able to cope with large megapixel camera deployments."


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