Smart data on the move!

Explore • Pulse #4 • 5 min
By Julien Thèves

Data, data, everywhere! Big data and the algorithms doing all the intensive data crunching are transforming whole areas of our daily lives — and transport is no exception. At a time when technologies are evolving faster than ever, we look at what could be achieved through cleverer use of information.

Captured by machines, sent by our phones and shared in real time, data is everywhere and the sheer amount is growing all the time. In 2020, every person on planet Earth will be generating 1.7 megabytes of data per second — that’s the size of an MP3 music file. Big data has become a fact of life. But what’s now emerging is the idea of smart data. So, what exactly makes data ‘smart’? Well, rather than just passively collecting huge amounts of it, what if we could cherry pick the information we actually need, analyse it on the fly and feed it into our systems and operations to make them better? This kind of smart approach is paving the way for Industry 4.0, connected healthcare and smarter cities — in which shared mobility will play a crucial role.


So, where does all this smart data come from? The answer is: lots of places. Ticketing systems obviously tell us about passenger flows how many people validate a ticket at a given place and time, or how many reduced fare tickets are bought in a specific district. Fleet management systems also collect and analyse data on things like the positions of buses or metros. Similarly, CCTV cameras give us a picture of passenger numbers on transport networks.

But data can also come from outside the network. For several years now, some operators have been analysing the ‘digital exhaust’ from mobile phones to better understand passenger behaviour patterns. Provided by telecom companies, these data trails tell us about the movements of anyone carrying a device, derived from the relay antennas they use, with a range of 50 metres (160 ft) in cities and 2 kilometres (1.25 mi) in rural areas. It’s not very accurate, but it can be supplemented by information from other sources like GPS. This can be captured directly from smartphones, as long as the location function is enabled, and it’s accurate to 5 metres (16 ft). Other devices also provide information about our movements. On the Dijon network in France, for example, you can pay for your bus or tram ride contactlessly on the onboard validator. Like post payment solutions, this type of open payment technology gives insights into the habits of occasional network users, who don’t have travel passes.


Public transport authorities, rolling stock manufacturers and mobility operators are increasingly realising the value of smart data and how it can help improve services for passengers, such as real-time information and MaaS (Mobility as a Service) solutions, as well as predictive maintenance. All around the world, cities and businesses are leveraging this wealth of information to improve the way we travel. In Singapore — with its ubiquitous cameras and sensors of every kind — buses and metro trains are hugely popular and new forms of mobility are being readily developed. The city state’s public transport service is up there with the world’s best, and only 20% of people own a private car. In Bordeaux, France, latest-generation on-demand transport is gaining real traction, made all the better by algorithms. The Ke’Op service from Keolis lets you book a journey, even at the last minute, with the assurance you’ll be taken right to your destination. The predictive model developed by France-based startup Qucit makes it easier to use self-service bicycles by anticipating user demand and availability at stations. The solution devised in Berlin helps you park your car by predicting vacating spots in real time. And traveller apps are fast being rolled out, though in some cases there’s real room for improvement. “Multimodal data is still quite limited,” says Dr Niels van Oort, codirector of the Smart Public Transport Lab at TU Delft in the Netherlands. “So, if you want to do the first part of your trip by bicycle, then ride the metro, there aren’t many apps that can give you that kind of joined-up information. As far as offline apps go, they’re mostly unimodal and don’t cover the entire door-to-door traveller experience.”


With all this data sharing, what about privacy? In Europe, the General Data Protection Regulation, adopted in 2016 and enforced in 2018, provides a set of safeguards around how data can be collected and used. In France, the GDPR comes amid a raft of provisions already planned by CNIL, the country’s data protection agency. Other parts of the world have similar regulations and agencies to enforce them, such as the Privacy Shield framework in the United States and the Office of the Privacy Commissioner in Canada.

Beyond the obligation to anonymise data, operators are increasingly required to make it freely available. This is the concept of open data. In Rennes, France, for example, data from the transport network is now being widely disseminated. The STAR network, operated by Keolis, shares information with businesses, citizens and other stakeholders to help improve mobility services and better serve the public interest. “Startups developing transport apps should commit to discouraging solo driving, for example,” says Vincent Cadoret, chief data officer for Keolis. “Route calculators for motorists like Waze can create congestion, noise and pollution on streets that were previously quiet, just because the algorithm sends them that way.”


So, what others shifts does all this smart data herald? As well as new mobility services, it should provide the basis for casting a new vision of what cities will look like in the future. “Smart cities are often judged by how much better things work, like real-time information on vacant parking spots, streetlights that come on at the right time and freer flowing traffic,” says Arnaud Julien, innovation director for Keolis. “But we can go so much further by putting people at the heart of it, then interconnecting all those systems around them. From education to sport, culture, transport and more — making data freely available can improve quality of life by focusing on sustainability, efficiency and resilience as the drivers of how well a city functions.”

With the power of 5G, the rise of connected devices and innovations like biometric identification, the data on us will be even more detailed and precise, so it can be put to ever smarter uses. This ferment of inventiveness is a huge opportunity, not least for public transport authorities. And the authorities making a firm commitment to the reasonable and fair management of smart data will ensure it’s not only giants like the GAFAM companies — Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft — that will be cleverly exploiting their data for commercial purposes.


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