Inside TransportAPI: how open data is helping you catch the bus

Inside TransportAPI: how open data is helping you catch the bus

Keeping it real-time

It’s critical that the data provided by TransportAPI to app developers is both fast and reliable. Harassed commuters won’t tolerate error messages or inaccurate data any more than they would the cancellation of their train home.

Raper admits that, while you would expect 99.99% reliability from an infrastructure-as-a-service provider like Amazon or Microsoft Azure, you can’t expect high figures from data-as-a-service hosts. Why? “There are outages on the sensor networks that feed in and you can’t control that,” not to mention connections with other services “that sometimes get stressed”. He cited the recent Tube strikes as a time when data feeds are under enormous strain, and TransportAPI uses auto-scaling technology with its cloud providers to help ensure information keeps flowing to travellers during data rush hours.

transport_api_working

The company also does a lot of internal and external monitoring of its systems. Raper said the firm is constantly checking the performance of the Apache server and its Ruby on Rails application, and uses Pingdom to check how the services look to TransportAPI’s customers. “We do monitor the service pretty obsessively,” admitted Raper.

The company publishes its uptime metrics and is very upfront if there are problems with the feeds. “Ultimately, confidence in our service comes from trust,” he said. “If you’re on fire but you don’t tell anybody, and you don’t tell them afterwards either, people worry. You just can’t afford that.”

Going beyond the bus timetable

Transport data may not be a sexy topic of conversation, but the forthcoming projects TransportAPI is developing with its partners are genuinely innovative. One partner is installing Bluetooth counters at bus stops to estimate how many people are waiting at the stop. (An app that tells you how many people are in the bus queue in front of you – is there anything more quintessentially British?) Then there’s the prototype cameras that have been installed on two of London’s double-decker buses, which use face tracking to tell customers on the lower deck how many seats are available upstairs, with the precise location of the free seats shown on an LCD display at the bottom of the stairwell.

“The forthcoming projects TransportAPI is developing with its partners are genuinely innovative”

The company also has ambitions beyond traditional forms of public transport. TransportAPI is working with a company called Taxicode to provide a price-comparison site for cab journeys, allowing users to enter a pickup point and destination to see the range of prices on offer from different firms, and types of vehicle. The company is also in talks with car hire firms and car clubs to merge their data with public transport prices, so that travellers can work out if it’s cheaper to jump behind the wheel for all or part of a journey.

However, TransportAPI’s most disruptive plans concern the rail network and creating a data-mineable source of British rail fares. Raper claims online ticket sellers such as Thetrainline.com aren’t allowed to data-mine the fare information provided by different train operators. TransportAPI will use open data about rail fares to build a database that can answer queries like “can I get a ticket that costs half the price for three times the journey time?” or “what’s the most scenic route between A and B?” “We’re enabling people to find the answers to those sort of questions, and we think we can find new markets,” said Raper. Handing public transport data back to the public? Now that sounds like a “fare” deal.

While Transport API is busy mapping out Britain’s transport routes, Conscious Me is a tech startup mapping out companies that could change your life.

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