Let’s spread regional public transport data as open data

Original article is written in Japanese, posted on Tokyo Kotsu Shimbun at Sep 26, 2016: 3. Print.

When the traffic schedule is disturbed due to bad weather or accident, how will we decide the next action? If you look around on a train or bus, you probably notice that there are many passengers searching for transit information using smartphones.

As a researcher of information technology, I have been involved in providing information on public transportation for several years, and I have been feeling that users are becoming more and more demanding. They were once satisfied with finding the timetable from the computer the night before, but it is now normal for them to search the transfer route from the smartphone while traveling, and they even require information such as delay and congestion in real time.

Considering the need to reform information systems of public transportation, in February 2016, I held a symposium entitled “Transportation-GeoMedia Summit” inviting entrepreneurs of online public transport route finder services and experts in public transport data. There, it became clear that many of the bus routes could not be retrieved with public transport route finders yet. While there are one thousand and several hundreds route bus operators all over the country in Japan, only 500 operators at most are on the public transport route finder systems. While railway data is unified and commercially available, bus data is not and needs to be gathered individually from each operator. Therefore, information on buses especially the one in small cities still cannot be retrieved from smartphone applications.

Discussion at Transportation-Geo-Media Summit

Promotion of open data can overcome such a situation. Following the government’s open data policy, the timetable data should be published without restrictions on the use including commercial use, so that the public transport route finder services can use the bus data more easily. In that context, my friends and I launched a service called “OpenTrans.it” to support making regional bus data open. The regional buses in Shimada-shi and Yaizu-shi, Shizuoka prefecture, Japan, that published data with OpenTrans.it are now searchable on Google Maps. There are bus operators who provide their own applications, but from the user’s point of view, it is more beneficial if the information can be found on a familiar application together with other transit information. Publishing not applications but the data is the best strategy to deliver the information to the public.

It is important to provide the data continually as well as the data to be accurate, but there might be small bus operators who do not have enough personnel to do so. In that case, you can turn to the local IT engineers. Since the Great East Japan Earthquake, IT engineers are more and more eager to use their skills for the local community. You can see community activities called “Civic Tech” and “Code for” take place in various places. Regional public transportation is also a matter of high interest there and that should be a powerful encouragement to create and maintain the open data.

Regarding the development of data on regional public transportation, we often hear negative opinions such as “Only locals use the transit,” or “If you wait, it comes at last.” Compared to the analysis of big data and the development of automatic driving, data maintenance might look less special. However, once you can get bus transit directions from anywhere in the country, no one can do without it anymore. Let’s work together for it and make a new “standard” of local public transportation.

Masaki Ito

Research associate, Institute of Industrial Science, The University of Tokyo. Specialties are ubiquitous computing and spatial information technology. Currently he is interested in information technology and public transportation, and is engaged in developing smartphone apps for advanced mobility, analysis of big data in public transportation, and promotion of open data. Formerly an assistant professor, Graduate School of Engineering, Tottori University from 2010 to 2013. Current position since 2013. Received B.A. in Environment and Information Studies in 2002 and Ph.D. in Media and Governance in 2009 both at Keio University.