Open Rail Data

Jonathan Raper and I gave presentations on Open Rail Data – Jonathan from a more political angle, and me from a decidedly technical angle.

The material went down really well – there’s plenty of scope for us to show what can be done if timetable, real-time running and fares data is made openly available. I thoroughly enjoyed delivering the presentation – I haven’t done that since Berlin in 2006, and I’d forgotten how easily I slip in to “presenter mode”.

Here is a copy of my OpenTech 2011 presentation in PDF format if you’re interested. Or, if you simply want to get in touch, peter.hicks@poggs.co.uk.

I’m celebrating this evening with a curry.

UpdateJonathan’s presentation is also available

Google Maps’ Data Quality

Harry Wood pointed out that Google Maps has removed Camden Town tube station from its map.Whilst I doubt Google have done this intentionally, it has set me thinking about data quality.

When developing TransportHacker (which isn’t live yet, there aren’t enough hours in the day!), I noticed the M25 was named “Autoroute Britannique M25”. It’s been corrected now, but how on earth did that one slip by?

More data quality issues (which may have been fixed by the time you read this):

  • Upper Holloway station has three icons – the Underground roundel, the Overground roundel, and the National Rail symbol. Click the Underground/Overground (Wombling Free?) icon, and you see it’s actually from the bus stop outside the station
  • Hop down to Highbury Corner, and you can see that Highbury and Islington station has the Underground and Overground roundels, but no National Rail symbol. Click on the roundels, and you’ll see that – yes – National Rail trains do serve the station
  • Examine, if you will, The Famous Cock. On Google Maps, it’s between Starbucks and Flight Centre. Google Streetview shows no Famous Cock there – in fact, it’s right next to Highbury and Islington station
  • Finally, what is White Stadt? I think it should be White City…

Here lies the danger with processing large sets of data – do you know they’re correct?

TfL re-release Trackernet API

Back in June, Transport for London released their Trackernet API to the public. This is about as close an insight in to how the tube network is performing as you can get without being there in person. Its enormous popularity caused their internal system to collapse, and the service was pulled. What a way to demonstrate the appetite for this data!

Ever since, there’s been frequent talk of whether the API is going to return or not. I, for one, have been particularly looking forward to the day it returns so I can get to work adding more feeds to TransportHacker. In the meantime, I’ve resurrected TubeHorus.

That day was yesterday.

I was invited to a press conference at 55 Broadway, London Underground’s headquarters, where the TfL Developer area was relaunched with additional feeds, and importantly, the Trackernet API. This time, to cope with demand, it’s been placed on the Microsoft Azure platform, although Microsoft’s representative was keen to point out that it’s not just for .NET applications.

Despite having to rush out of the press conference to catch a train out of town, I’ve had a few hours playing with the API, and it differs little from the original service. The biggest changes I can see are:

  • URL change – it’s on a different server and the URLs are RESTified
  • There’s little server-side filtering of the data, so you may end up pulling more than you actually need
  • Data freshness – the data is only pushed out to the cloud every 30 seconds. I know at least one person who was deeply unhappy about this
  • You need to register – free – to get the URL for the service, but it’s not locked down with an API key

TfL really haven’t had an easy task to get here, and I salute their efforts. TrackerNet was a system designed to take multiple sources of data from the trackside and other operational systems, and present them internally in a coherent manner, including to drive other internal systems. It was never envisaged that the general public would have access to it, and so architectural decisions were probably made regarding its sizing that precluded making its data available en-masse.

So, TfL have set the standard. If they can build a platform to disseminate their real-time information sensibly, why can’t the likes of National Rail Enquiries? Hopefully NRE will see the benefits of making their real-time data (and whilst we’re at it, static data too) available without onerous contracts and agreements. Heck, NRE already have a scaleable platform for their Live Departure Boards service that can handle train information for the whole country – why are they concerned about scaling?

On a less political note, we’ve also been promised access to the Journey Planner API within the next few months, and there were some murmurs about real-time bus information, but nothing concrete.

Real-time Tube Tracking

I have a lot of respect for the folks at the Greater London Assembly, especially those who worked to get the Train Prediction API exposed and available.

Many people have seen Matthew Somerville‘s Live Map of Underground Trains which was whipped up in a frighteningly short time.

I’m working on a Rails interface to the Train Prediction API, with an ‘advanced’ mode for those who grok the tube. It’s a little rusty, and not even beta-quality, but it’s available for you to play with if you so wish.

Here’s hoping that particular box stands up to the load :)

On The Buses

TfL’s Countdown system for London Buses was a leap forward several years ago. I can now walk up to a bus stop and tell – with reasonable accuracy – how long before my bus arrives.

There is one problem with this – I have to be at the bus stop!

When National Rail introduced Live Departure Boards several years ago, it was a giant leap forward for rail travellers. TfL brought in Live Departure Boards for the Underground some years later, although this is less useful.

Wouldn’t it be absolutely fantastic to have a map of a bus route with the positions of the buses on it? Colour the map in with a deeper shade where the route is more congested, and let people have a visual representation of how long it’s likely to take for their bus to arrive. Before you leave home, have a look to see where the delays are on your route in to work, and re-plan your journey if it’s going to take too long.