Building a city without open data

Published in
5 min readSep 8, 2015


Introducing Project Istanbul

Tl;dr: We’ve used open data to expand the coverage of our urban transport app to many complex cities around the world. But the availability and quality of open data varies and has limitations. In the process of fixing data everywhere we go, we’ve developed a number of tools. They allow us to create and manage our own city datasets (sort of like Sim City but without Godzilla). We showcase this with Istanbul since it’s a challenging example. Also it’s a nice place to visit.

Open Data and Cities

Citymapper was started on the back of the open data movement, the idea that if you make information accessible, someone will make good use of it, and people will benefit. We couldn’t have done what we did without the work done by many over decades in pushing this agenda.

When Transport for London (TfL) made its data available, there was an opportunity to design and develop a comprehensive transport app, starting in the world’s most historic and iconic public transport city.

When New York City’s MTA followed suit and opened its data, we expanded into the other great capital of the world. We won the Grand Prize in MTA’s open data competition in 2013, a couple of months after launching.

There have been many cities since. As data has become available in so many places around the world, we’ve expanded into cities across Europe, US, Latin America, and Asia.

We even tackled Tokyo, arguably the world’s largest city, even with a limited open data set. When the Tokyo Metro organised their first Open Data Contest in late 2014, we won the Special Prize, as the only non-Japanese winner.

But enough boasting.

We’ve learned that the goal is not just to launch cities and win fancy prizes, although that’s fun. It’s about maintaining and improving data so that citizens and travellers can trust us to give them the best information when and where they need it.

And this is hard. The largest cities of our planet are complicated and evolve over time. They require dedicated focus. And we’ve found that open data is not enough to satisfy the information demands of the ever wanting smartphone user.

So we’ve been fixing data. And we’ve been improving data. And we’ve been adding data. And in the process of doing so we’ve developed a number of tools to help us scale and solve problems faster. And to empower our heroes to fix things and solve problems without the need for engineering.

We’ve done a lot with these tools. Well for one, we’ve used them to create some fake data…

Inventing the future: Crossrail 2018

The London Crossrail is a new high speed train line which doesn’t really exist yet. But we wondered how it may affect travel times across the city. Perhaps we could play real estate arbitrage on the markets, hedging against this whole tech startup thing.

We decided to use our tools to build the line ourselves, and hooked it up with our transit graph and routing infrastructure.

CROSSRAIL London, opening 2018. To simulate the effect on London transport, we integrated the full future Crossrail system into our routing.

Peseros: The Buses of Mexico City

Well sometimes we also create real data.

In Mexico City, a network of privately run microbuses flood the streets alongside other public buses. Peseros, as the locals call them, because they used to charge a 1 peso flat fare, carry more passengers than any other form of transport in the city. The chaotic nature of peseros means there is no comprehensive list of routes available. The data resides in people’s knowledge of the network.

But with the help of a SuperHero and some SuperUsers generating routes, we figured many of the Peseros out. The information was added inside our app and integrated with the rest of our app infrastructure.

With the help of users we gathered data on Pesero buses in Mexico City

User reactions (require knowledge of Mexican Spanish):

Introducing Citymapper Istanbul

We’ve been doing this for a while, and in showcasing our efforts we felt we should demo a big challenge. We decided to pick a large city with no available data. We picked Istanbul. It’s massive. It’s complicated. It symbolizes our international expansion. It has good food.

Here’s what the app looks like:

There are a lot of lines in this city:

Istanbul is in private beta. But we can give access to locals. If you’d like to help us test the app please sign up here.

Transport Agencies & Cities

Want us to help you make your data available faster? Want to be on the web, on smartphones and wearables with minimum hassle?

As supporters of open data we can give you access to tools and help you build, publish and maintain your data.

Find out more and get in touch here:

Heroes From Other Galaxies

There are too many cities in the world. And regardless of whether they have open data or not, we need help to get things right.

If you’d like to fix or generate data in your city get in touch at by filling out the bottom of the form for Heroes. We can build your city together.

Artistic rendering of a hero