Getting smart on data

The last five years have seen a growing interest in the concept of big data. Transport is no exception, and there is a real sense of anticipation about how new data sources could help deliver more efficient and reliable systems, better informed passengers and new products and services. Whilst there has been significant progress already, are these high expectations justified? And what can transport authorities do to help realise this vision?

Figure 1. Number of google searches for ‘big data’

google trends big data

Big data is commonly defined by the 3 Vs of volume, variety and velocity.

In a sense, transport planners have been doing ‘big data’ for decades, at least since the computer made it possible to develop complex models to simulate the operation of transport networks across large urban areas.

Building these models has traditionally required large scale, expensive and time consuming data collection exercises to describe the behaviour of individual households and the characteristics of transport networks.

So the underlying data certainly had volume and variety, if not quite velocity.

Since around 2000, the development of real time information began adding ‘velocity’ to the mix. This went hand in hand with a growing interest in journey planning information and the development of more sophisticated traffic control systems.

So what’s happened in the past five years to justify all the new excitement around data?

The key to understanding this lies in the way in which a combination of relatively recent technologies have changed the way information is collected and the type of information that is available. Advances in mobile computing, telecoms, remote sensing and cloud computing mean that large volumes of digital information on individual movements and preferences are now being collected passively at very low cost.

Some of this information is generated by transport authorities (smart ticketing, traffic sensors, GPS tracking of public transport vehicles, journey planners, real time information systems). But an increasing proportion relies on private devices, as well as infrastructure and software owned by third parties. [examples of Google maps and Strava].

Figure 2. Google Maps – Birmingham

google map directions v2

Figure 3. STRAVA app cycle ride density


strava heat map

New data sources can offer a cheaper alternative to traditional transport surveys. In some cases, they can actually give a richer picture about individual behaviour, the current performance of the transport system and even insights into how things are likely to change a short time into the future. In the right hands, it is easy to see how this can help transport users, decision makers and society at large.

But along with opportunities come some challenges.

One is that new data requires new tools and skills. Early experiences with bluetooth data illustrate the problem well. Inferring directionality, determining sample rates, identifying unique devices, converting the number of detected devices to number of vehicles are all new problems that require innovative solutions.

The highly analytical transport community is well placed to tackle the challenge but this will require an open mind, a degree of risk taking and some investment in staff development, at a time when transport authorities are facing severe financial constraints.

Another challenge is that new data requires new ways of working with an expanding community of data users and providers, which includes transport authorities, telecoms companies, academia, traditional transport consultants, analytics specialists, hardware providers, transport operators and a growing echo-system of independent app developers and tech start-ups.

This is beginning to throw up all sorts of questions around open data, data ownership, data integration, data quality, privacy, intellectual property, commercial confidentiality, profit v not-for-profit models and public v private ownership.

A fundamental question for transport authorities is what role should they seek to take – data creator, data integrator, commissioner, seed funder, entrepreneur, honest broker? Needless to say, this is an evolving debate.

Over the coming year, we will be engaging with the challenges and opportunities created by emerging data sources, starting with a workshop hosted at the Future Cities Catapult in mid-May. Exciting times ahead so expect more posts on this topic.

Ten thoughts on very large ports

In particular Teesport after our visit this week

  1. Ports are shape shifters – they adapt to changing patterns of traffic (with the application of large amounts of investment that is). Car import terminals become container terminals, steel terminals switch from exports to imports, coal unloading to biomass unloading.
  2. There’s no jobs in logistics sheds per se in the future – at one of the vast Tesco’s distribution sheds at Teesport we were told that they don’t bother to have the lights on because there are no human beings in there.
  3. Ports are fascinating, important but…invisible (as in nobody knows what’s going on behind the fences). Teesport couldn’t have put on a better visit for us but prior to this we found it difficult to organise a visit to a port in the north. Compare and contrast with Rotterdam where tourist boats regularly tour the docks… Don’t see why something similar wouldn’t work in England.
  4. Teesside is used to thinking big. If it hadn’t it wouldn’t be here. First through private sector port and industrial development and later through good old 1970s industrial policy – with a new Teesside authority working with big nationalised industries and big private sector corporations to make it happen. Where now stands chemical works and port facilities there was nothing but mud flats. There’s a great twenty minute documentary ‘Planning Teesside’ 1970 which shows a drive to develop the area’s industrial base but shot through with tensions around environmental impacts and the suspicions of local people around the transfer of powers from local towns to the new authority.
  5. Teesside matters but because it doesn’t fit the current template about regional development being based on agglomeration of white collar employment in core city centres and its population isn’t huge – it tends to get missed out of thinking about the regions. But what’s wrong with being industrial?
  6. Mayors are seen by some as an all purpose governance panacea. Not sure I would go that far however you could see it working well in Teesside given the nature of the economic and political geography and the need for the area to punch its weight
  7. From what we heard the most significant shift in ports policy in recent decades continues to gather momentum. For decades we have been concentrating the biggest ports in the most crowded south eastern part of the country (and the public sector paid vast amounts for the road and rail infrastructure to take the goods to the rest of the country while clogging up key rail and road arteries in the process). The balance in port traffic is now beginning to shift northwards.
  8. If this was Germany, Teesside would have electrified railways with frequent local services joining up its multiple urban centres but also with the capability to handle the freight traffic to and from the port and industrial base. With the decline of the local steel industry and the port’s big ambitions an overhaul of the area’s rail network looks more of a no-brainer than ever.
  9. When you can get invited beyond the fence, ports give you a window into how the wider economy is changing (who knew imports from the Baltics were on the increase?) as well as how technology is enabling mind boggling things to happen with very few people involved (vast container ships with tiny crews for example)
  10. Recommended longer reads on modern ports and shipping: Rose George – ‘Deep Sea and Foreign Going – inside shipping, the invisible industry that brings you 90% of everything‘ and chapter three (‘port statistics’) of ‘The View from the Train: Cities and other Landscapes‘ by Patrick Keiller.

Change is happening fast – what’s next

Electric Metroshuttle 3

Now we are the Urban Transport Group the pace is picking up with more invitations to speak at more conferences and events. Which also gives the opportunity to hear from others and tune into what’s going on out there in a host of areas, from skills to tech and streets to logistics. With the future speeding up many of these events had more verve than they might have had a few years back. After all, one year ago no electric double deckers, five years ago no Uber, 10 years ago no iPads, smartphones, Facebook or Twitter. With transformative change happening so quickly – what’s next?

Reach Change is happening fast – what’s next here