Many of the innovations I’ve covered in this year’s series on sustainable transport have been technologies. Others have been policies. This one lies somewhere in between those two things, and it comes from Helsinki in Finland. The city authorities want to raise the number of journeys taken by public transport, thereby reducing traffic and lowering emissions. There are many ways to do this of course, and to support new thinking and new business models, the government has passed a new law requiring transport firms to open up their data.
Helsinki already has a great track record with open data. It has run its own municipal statistics bureau for over a century, and the scope was recently broadened into the wider region. Anyone can dip into this huge mine of information about the city and how it operates, making the data open, transparent and accessible. The data has all kinds of uses in health, governance and democracy, education and business. For our own purposes, let’s stick to transport and imagine what you can do with this sort of data:
- There is extensive data on traffic speeds and congestion. From this you could optimise bus routes to avoid getting snarled up in traffic. Delivery firms could work out routes that keep their vans moving. Ordinary citizens can get traffic updates or look up alternative routes.
- If transport firms are opening up their own information, then we can establish where people go in the city and when, in granular but anonymous detail. One of the big advantages of this is that new operators can identify under-served areas or potential new services. There was a good example of this in London recently, where a company were able to spot a gap in night bus coverage and introduce a new bus route.
- If you’ve ever stood at a station or bus stop and seen an information screen displaying an estimated arrival time for your train or bus, then you’ve benefited from live transport data. In most circumstances that’s information that the operator is using, and it may or may not be available to others. Open up that data, and third parties can do something with it. Perhaps a developer will create an app that takes that data and maps it, like Tuup have done in Finland. You don’t have to go to the bus stop to see how far away the bus is – you can look at your smartphone. Some other cities have this already or have an official city app, but open data allows for competition and innovation.
- Another real life example that’s already come out of Helsinki’s open data is the BlindSquare app. It uses all that data about the city to create a voiceover to help blind people navigate the city. First developed in Finland, it’s now available in a variety of languages and locations.
We’re going to hear a lot more about open data and smart cities. There’s a buzz about the idea, and it will become even more useful as autonomous vehicles start to catch on. Helsinki offers a good example of what can be done, and it’s important to note the ‘open’ part. There’s a good chance that other cities will choose to keep this data to themselves, or license it to chosen partners. That’s more likely to lead to corruption or corporate control. In some places transport companies will lobby to keep their own data private, which would be understandable in some contexts. But where businesses are benefiting from massive amounts of public data at no expense, it’s fair that they contribute back into that pool of data. Helsinki’s decision to make data available to anyone, for free, is much more accountable. Ordinary citizens, journalists and politicians alike can see exactly the same information as the companies and transport authorities. It encourages innovation and efficiency, and it’s good for democracy and transparency too.