EXtended Information Standard for Transportation Systems – EXISTS (I)

Image result for archiveThree questions

Today, Google scored a big point with GTFS. Easy to understand, easy to use, plenty of libraries and software programs on all the major platforms (Windows, Linux) as well and minor ones (OSX, Android), GTFS appeared as the only solution the complicated problem of sharing information about public transportation in a manageable way.

The simple GTFS  file format (tabular data inside text files, all compressed together as a ZIP archive) allowed every enthusiast working in a garage to create his own data set about his favorite transit company. And the solution presented by Google Maps works like magic: don’t send us the information, make it just public on a server. The rest is history. More than a thousand cities are on Google Maps and for each one of them, there is abundant information regarding its public transit system.

A thousand cities among many more in the world,  with those many having each its own public transportation, that is worrying. This leads to questions like :

  • why don’t cities adopt more quickly GTFS ?
  • how can the transit agencies switch to GTFS and if so, how to make it quicker ?
  • what are the resources available for the adoption process and what other resources must be made readily available ?

In other words, why, how, what. The Simon Sinek questions are more than ever important.

Image result for city subway mapWhy

The people who created GTFS had in mind several ideas: ease of use, open format, easy to extend. But what started as an MVP, quickly limited itself to a bunch of files that are hard to maintain. It is simple for an agency with a couple lines and several dozens stations. For a city with hundreds of bus/tram/subway/train aggregated lines, the GTFS becomes a liability. It requires a dedicated infrastructure, people who know in detail its strengths and limitations. Those people are even today a rare resource. Technology gets adopted by the masses because it is simple to use, like the smartphone.  No need to be a rocket scientist in order to know how to use the device  put on market by Steve Jobs ten years ago.

The IT systems that run behind and support transportation infrastructure are, most of the time, legacy systems, from an era when transit was a skill and not a commodity. Today it is no longer the case. Uber is challenging the old habits and I’m pretty sure it is only a matter of months till we will see Uber bus attacking the traditional market place of public transit companies.

Image result for github How

Open source movement has been fighting closed source software companies since the early ’80s, but the advent of Linux and Apache gave a huge boost to the movement. Source control tools like git + github opened the doors to freedom.  GTFS standard is public and documented. Github projects are many and some are really good. the number of mobile applications that make use of public transit information are more and more numerous.

Nothing attracts success more than success.  The GIS tools, once the prized jewel of a limited number of  companies, are now available to anyone looking for knowledge, learning, skills to acquire, glory, a job, in a word, everything. There are tools that take any GTFS file  and draw the bus lines on a map, search the best time schedules, assist the user with trip planning, including connections and much more. All that for zero cost, all that for little knowledge if any.

Image result for transit feedWhat

The public data exchanges like transit feeds offer the data from transportation companies  for free, updated monthly, or weekly.  Easy to use, information is publicly available.

Transit agencies should offer the information for free. They have much the to gain, starting with the awareness. The official data coming from the horse’s mouth (transportation agency) is the real one. No longer need to use mathematical estimates or best guess knowledge produced because it fills the gap. The gap (lack of official information) should never exist.

The question that remains is what data should the agency provide and in which format ? A quick and not so good answer is to get all the data GTFS needs and present it as GTFS. This is not the best choice. GTFS is a quick and dirty answer to a bigger question: what is the information a transit agency should make public ? Based on that, everything can be rethought, designed on a need by basis. The data provided is what a smart city needs.

In order to keep this article short, I will stop here and continue next time with the information EXISTS provide.

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