Research and advocacy of progressive and pragmatic policy ideas.

Editorial Public Goods

Set Public Transportation Data Free

Make real-time public transport information public, free and useable.

By Editorial Team9 September 2019

  • In our research piece published earlier this week, we outlined key issues in commuting via public transportation. If Malaysia is serious about increasing the use of public transportation for commuting, stakeholders will need to address the inconvenience, uncertainty and other costs associated with public transportation.
  • Many of the solutions we proposed in our piece published last week require making public transportation data open source, particularly real-time data. Like users of e-hailing services, users of public transportation would appreciate knowing when their bus or train will arrive based on real-time information. Having such data be made public and open-source would also enable developers and service providers to come up with better solutions for commuters.

Getting to real-time

  • For now, commuters rely on information from transport authorities or third-party transit apps like Moovit or Google Maps to plan their commute. Information such as arrival times is quite static, especially for buses, and oftentimes do not reflect reality. As many stranded commuters would agree, ideally the information we get should be based on real-time GPS-tracking data rather than what is scheduled.
  • How can we get there? Real-time public transport information could be provided three ways:
    • Transport agencies could make the data open-source
    • Private data firms or transport corporations could collect their own data, making parts of it open-source and/or selling parts of the data to third-party developers
    • The data could be crowdsourced by a public or community initiative funded by donations and made open-source for the public good
  • Public initiative: Digital Matatus is an example of crowdsourcing public transportation data by a community. The lack of transit information and a map to navigate Nairobi’s bus system motivated a group of developers and students to map out the city’s many bus routes using their mobile phones. The Nairobi city council eventually adopted this crowd-sourced map, making the metropolis easier to navigate.
  • Private/commercial initiative: For Malaysian drivers, applications such as Waze have shown the power of crowdsourcing transport data by a commercial entity. Users of the app transmit their geo-location, which gives a real-time picture of traffic flow. App users also contribute traffic updates such as the cause of traffic congestions and changes in local road access.
  • However, commercial apps for public transportation is not yet common. In 2016, a tech collaboration between Prasarana and a start-up called WRZiT had set out to build an application that would allow users to track buses real-time. The collaboration has however been inactive since 2017.
  • Crowd-sourcing public transportation data by private companies or by community-based initiatives is an interesting proposition. But as the above examples show, such endeavours are limited. Long-term commitment and resources are needed not only to collect the real-time data but also to maintain the data platform.
  • This brings up a fundamental question: if affordable, reliable public transport is a public good funded by taxpayer ringgits, shouldn’t the data associated with it be made public and free?

If affordable, reliable public transport is a public good, shouldn’t public transport data be made public and free?

  • In 2017, the Selangor government released an application capable of tracking its Smart Selangor feeder buses as close to real-time as possible. It’s an example of a tax-payer funded public transport app focused on commuters. There are however design interface limitations, and it can be improved by better app stability and more frequently updated ETAs.

Making transit data democratic

  • According to the APAD website, a system called the Performance Monitoring Hub System currently exists to provide APAD real-time information on vehicle movements. There appears to be plans for making the data available to the public, though the details are unclear. For example, there is an existing Passenger Information System which according to the APAD website is meant to provide real-time location and arrival times via public information display boards, though the latter has yet to materialise for buses. In 2017, there was also an announcement of a mobile application to help Klang Valley commuters plan their public transportation journeys better, though there has been no update as yet.
  • More recently, e-hailing company Grab announced a collaboration with the Malaysian Digital Economy Corp (MDEC) to provide real-time traffic data and work on resolving congestion issues in the Klang Valley. Similarly, the Iskandar Johor development is partnering with Waze to collect traffic data to plan out the city’s bus routes and improve traffic flow. Though no specific details were provided for these two projects, we hope that such real-time data could also be applied to public transport vehicles.
  • Ultimately, we hope and strongly advocate that such plans and collaborations will translate into real-time public transit data being shared with the public by 2020, not only for our reference but also for more proactive uses. We envision a future where commuters may use the data to indicate their preferred routes or timings and where transport service providers can respond quickly with cost-effective solutions – no more large, energy-guzzling but empty buses. We also envision a future where the government would use this data to target route subsidies better.
  • Many city and county councils across the globe are making their transit data public, though many others are still reluctant. Making real-time public transit data accessible allows us to hold public transportation agencies and service providers accountable, which could explain why progress in these matters is slow. There is also an issue of control; research indicates that many transport agencies wish to be the provider of a single “official” mapping and planning tool.
  • The desire for control over data and its uses is understandable, but it denies the possibility for better solutions to arise from Malaysia’s developers and members of the public. We believe that it is in the best interest of the public for the Ministry of Transportation to publish and democratise real-time public transit data so that both private firms and communities could participate in developing solutions for public transportation.

Update – 20th March 2020: RapidKL has recently released an interactive map that shows its bus locations in real-time. This is a commendable move towards making public transportation data open and accessible to commuters.

Other interesting reading:

Who Owns Transit Data? (CityLab)
Traze (Live transit data visualisation)
The real benefits of real-time transit data (Sidewalk Talk)
Smart Mobility and Open Data: A Global and Personal Perspective (Institute for Transportation and Development Policy)

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