By Richard Abisla
Hundreds of millions of people worldwide rely on public transportation daily, yet only a tiny proportion of those users have access to accurate information about when their transport will arrive or where it is going. This lack of information is not solely customer-facing: the majority of transit operators, whether public or private, do not collect automated data that would allow them to make more informed business decisions. This lack of data creates a vicious cycle in which commuters, tired of wasting time as they wait for their bus or train, abandon mass transit and seek lower-capacity vehicles, like taxis, rideshares, two-wheelers, or autorickshaws, which increases congestion and air pollution. Both transit riders and operators would benefit from access to data about public transportation; on the user side, accurate information increases rider satisfaction and ridership, while on the operator side, data can be used to improve offerings and better meet the needs of local communities.222
Technological innovation and the transparency movement have spurred and spread the adoption of open transit data over the past 13 years. In 2006, the creation of a worldwide open standard for transit data, the General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS), provided an interoperable format for transit agencies of all types and modalities to share data that can be displayed on mobile apps, or used to create maps and schedules. A growing worldwide transparency movement, demonstrated by the 2011 launch of the Open Government Partnership and the institution of open data policies in the United States (2013), Britain (2010), and India (2012), have provided frameworks and policy assurances that citizens can access data collected by their governments. Despite the proliferation of technological solutions that can promote mass transit ridership and satisfaction, many countries lag in their adoption of open transit data, preventing their residents from accessing readily available tools to use transit more efficiently, save time, and reduce their dependence on lower-capacity vehicles.
This paper seeks to explain barriers to collecting, organizing, and sharing this data in the Indian public transport context, and will provide four case studies of transit data projects that are working to overcome these barriers. These successful projects provide examples of stakeholder engagement that can be replicated in other regions, such as Latin America, and countries where large portions of the population depend on mass transit. The paper will examine opportunities to include public transit data into existing data and transport policies, and will investigate opportunities to increase capacity-building efforts so that local transit authorities have adequate information to make decisions that favor open transit data.
In order to investigate transit data organization and publication in India, I interviewed 40 people over the course of seven weeks and made site visits in Delhi, Mumbai, Kochi, Bangalore, and Hyderabad. All interviewees have participated in the Indian mass transit ecosystem by providing, studying, innovating, or using public transit. The interviewees include representatives from central, state, and local government, transit corporation employees, representatives from civil society organizations, and academics; many are also regular public transit riders. I reviewed the existing literature on open data and transit data in India and examined the issue via local press coverage. The objective of the four case studies that follow are to illuminate the different environments and sets of stakeholders that have allowed these projects to develop and garner support within local government and transit corporations.
Kochi: NGO leadership and resources together with a forward-thinking government
In March of 2018, Kochi Metro Rail Limited (KMRL) was heralded as the first metro agency in India to open its data by publishing their GTFS feed on their website. KMRL’s open feed was developed with assistance from the World Resources Institute (WRI), a global research organization active throughout India that works to “turn big ideas into action at the nexus of environment, economic opportunity, and human well-being.” Kochi had initially approached WRI for help with their open data, and WRI was able to lend significant mentoring and technical assistance to KMRL staff. (KMRL signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with WRI in February of 2017, which included several initiatives to support urban transport and urban development, including public transport, transit oriented policy, electric mobility, and urban planning in Kochi.) KMRL publishes a static GTFS feed, which, in their case, is as good as real time data due to vehicle management software that ensures trains run on schedule.
KMRL, despite only operating the metro, currently acts as an interim Unified Metropolitan Transport Authority, leading other transportation modalities to organize and share their data. Other stakeholders include private bus operators, a network of 15,000 autorickshaw drivers, and the Rajagiri School of Engineering and Technology (RSET). RSET is developing a data dashboard for KMRL, allowing the agency to analyze their data in more sophisticated ways. This will become increasingly important—and useful—as open data practices spread to other modalities in the Kochi transportation ecosystem. KMRL has helped to organize 950 privately-operated buses that are under contract from the government of the State of Kerala. These bus owners have been organized into seven companies that have agreed to have GPS devices installed on their buses and pay for monthly maintenance. (The GPS installation was paid for by the Urban Mass Transit Company Limited (UMTC), a joint venture of several national and state government agencies and the private company Infrastructure Leasing and Financial Services Limited (IL&FS).) The 450 government-owned and operated buses do not yet have GPS installed, as they have yet to go through the required procurement process for the GPS devices. KMRL was also a key player in organizing a cooperative of 15,000 autorickshaw drivers that will engage in a variety of activities focused on drivers’ welfare and economic success. Most notably, the cooperative will begin offering transportation to Metro stations on a ticketed basis, and will develop a mobile application that will provide on-demand access to members that utilize the GPS installed in their fare boxes. KMRL officials note that organizing the bus companies into clusters and helping with the organization of the 15,000 autorickshaw drivers into a cooperative have been the most challenging parts of the project.
In order to provide arrival data for transit riders, Kochi has partnered with the Chalo mobile application to display metro, ferry, and bus data, and will soon add autorickshaws. Chalo has over 50,000 downloads and over 7,000 daily users, a modest amount for a city of over 2 million people. Because Kochi’s data is “open,” or hosted online and available for use, Kochi’s transit system is also displayed in Google Maps, which has over 1 billion active monthly users worldwide. As more buses and ferries are added to the GTFS feed, more developers may elect to build products using the feed. Access to the static GTFS files are free, and a link to the files are sent to the requestor’s email after inputting a name and email address.
Kochi officials have a clear vision that promoting ease of access to public transportation, such as providing first and last mile connectivity to metro stations and providing access to digital schedules and journey planners will both increase equity and improve environmental outcomes. KMRL officials have noted that if transit is faster and cheaper, poorer residents will have more economic opportunities and more disposable income, which can lead to better opportunities for their children and a better quality of life for families. (G.P. Hari, Personal Interview, Kochi, Feb. 11, 2019) This equity lens is unsurprising considering Kerala’s communist-leaning governance history. In a similar vein, the Kerala Minister for Transport has publicly noted that the shift of commuters to private, lower capacity vehicles are increasing pollution, traffic, and accidents. Retaining transit riders, and creating new ones, is key to addressing these concerns. Additionally, the Kochi Smart Cities mission shares administration with KMRL, resulting in a close relationship that has also influenced KMRL’s commitment to open data. (Aparna Vijaykumar, Personal Interview, Online, March 5, 2019.)
Delhi: Political will and academic leadership
In November of 2018, Delhi became the first city in India to provide static and real-time bus data feeds. Delhi’s bus open transit data project was initiated in 2016, with the formation of an advisory committee that included a broad swath of stakeholders in the urban mobility space, including government officials, the Delhi Transport Commissioner, staff from both Delhi bus corporations, university professors, and industry representatives, like Google, and ride-hailing companies Uber and Ola. (Pravesh Biyani, Personal Interview, New Delhi, Feb. 14, 2019) The Committee was a joint initiative of the Indraprastha Institute of Information Technology Delhi (IIITD) and the Delhi government, which is run by the Aam Aadmi Party, a new party that won on an anti-corruption platform and had made campaign promises to improve life in Delhi. As a result of the committee’s work, the Delhi Government signed a memorandum of understanding with IIITD to build a portal to share real time information publicly. IIITD, working with a group of student interns, unveiled a portal after five months. Both static and real-time GTFS feeds are available on the open transit data portal after a simple registration that includes contact information and explanation of the intended purpose of accessing the data use.
The Delhi GTFS feeds currently include the 1,700 buses that are under the control of the Delhi Integrated Multi-Modal System (DIMTS), a joint venture of the Delhi National Capital Territory Government and the IDFC Foundation. Known as “cluster buses,” these orange buses are monitored by DIMTS, who also manages the contracts with individual private bus operators. All cluster buses have GPS installed, which allows them to be monitored from a central control center. Presently, only DIMTS-administered buses feed real-time data into the control center and the GTFS Real Time feed, as the remaining 3,800 buses managed by the Delhi Transport Company (DTC) are not currently participating due to broken or missing GPS devices.
DIMTS has developed a proprietary transit application, PoochhO. In addition to arrival times for the 1,700 cluster buses, PoochhO estimates bus seat availability on buses and provides proximity and contact information for nearby autorickshaw drivers. (Samir Sharma, Personal Interview, New Delhi, Feb. 15, 2019.) Both DIMTS and DTC buses are visible on Google Maps, with cluster buses providing real-time information and DTC buses offering schedule data. However, Delhi’s bus data will be of limited use until the entire bus system’s data is available.
Barriers in the Delhi data project include funding constraints and nonfunctional or missing GPS units on the fleet of 3,800 DTC buses. Initially, limited knowledge of open data practices posed a challenge, but the strong partnership with IITD helped Delhi overcome this challenge.241 Furthermore, the partnership allowed the project to succeed without a large financial investment. One of the project’s biggest successes has been cultivating buy-in from the Delhi local government, the Department of Transportation, and DIMTS. And, now that the data is online and open data activists are able to use it for their own analyses.242
Bangalore: Academic influence, strong activism, and press coverage
Despite publicly announcing in 2017 that open bus data would be released imminently, as of early 2019 Bangalore has not published open static nor real-time GTFS feeds.243 Early excitement and positive press coverage244 of Bangalore Municipal Transportation Corporation’s (BMTC) open data commitment has transformed into frustration for many civil society stakeholders, including local tech workers who use a higher tier, yet still public, level of service known as “AC buses.”245 These are commuters who may shift to lower capacity vehicles when they are left waiting at the bus stop too long, adding to congestion and air pollution.246 A major fear of BMTC officials is that providing data on the AC bus lines, which are profitable, would open up those lines to competition from ridesharing companies Uber and Ola, reducing ridership and revenue.247
Another challenge has been buy-in from leadership at BMTC. In 2016, BMTC’s Managing Director supported open data, but soon left the organization, and her replacement wanted to monetize the data.248 This monetization push is a central barrier to open data provision in Bangalore, as BMTC has struggled to find financial resources to support the creation of both static and real-time GTFS feeds. Central to the desire to monetize the data is the reality that BMTC receives little in the way of subsidies from the Karnataka state government, and is run more like a for-profit business than a public service.249 However, many civil society actors and activists take exception to this line of thinking, strongly maintaining that mobility is a right and should be supported by the state government.250 These activist voices have been highlighted in the local press, and have provided positive pressure on BMTC leadership to make data available to riders.
In September 2018, a new IT Director took charge at BMTC and began to actively engage with civil society stakeholders. She began working with local NGOs to organize a static GTFS feed, often the first step to getting more useful real-time data.251 Working with the NGO Fields of View in a voluntary capacity allowed BMTC to experiment with GTFS without incurring costs or undergoing lengthy procurement processes, both of which could have derailed the project.252 The new BMTC leadership reports that they are committed to providing open transit data, and are actively trying to figure out how they can work with civil society and academia to organize and provide the data. While BMTC does provide their own proprietary mobile application,253 usage rates and user satisfaction are low.254
Bangalore’s vibrant stakeholder community continuously advocates for open data, putting pressure on BMTC to address the demand and need for open data. Central to the stakeholder community are academics like Dr. S. Rajagopalan of the International Institute of Information Technology-Bangalore, who served on BMTC advisory committees to help select Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS), which include the GPS devices and bus management software that can be used to create real-time GTFS feeds.255 BMTC adopted an ITS in 2016, and now every bus has GPS and can be monitored from a central control center.256 Dr. Rajagopalan also helped to create BMTC’s draft Data Sharing Policy, which has yet to be formally adopted.257 The policy is based on both the National Data Sharing and Accessibility Policy and Transport for London’s Open Data Policy.258 The Data Sharing Policy supports opening transit data for use by urban planners, educational institutions, businesses, transportation companies, and trip planning websites and portals.259 In addition to academics like Dr. Rajagopalan, the involvement of activist groups like DataMeet260 and Bangaluru Bus Prayaanikara Vedike (Bangalore Bus Commuters Forum),261 coupled with interest from the local press, have elevated the conversation in Bangalore and put public pressure on BMTC. While these groups are not solely focused on bus data, they do make arguments in favor of better trip planning and for using the data to understand how bus routes provide access to jobs and other resources from across the socioeconomic spectrum. In particular, groups like the Bangaluru Bus Prayaanikara Vedike are interested in making sure that lower-revenue bus lines that go to poorer areas are not terminated.262
Hyderabad: State open data policy leading the way
In 2016, the Telangana State Government unveiled a state open data policy based upon the National Data Sharing and Accessibility Policy (NDSAP), becoming the second state in India to adopt an open data policy.263 The policy provides clear directives to state government departments to open up non-sensitive datasets, going as far as saying that “opening up the government is the new world order.”264 The policy indicates that datasets should be in “human readable and machine readable formats, using open standards, and under open license.”265 The creation of Telangana as a new state after splitting from Andhra Pradesh in 2014 provided a special opportunity for the government to reflect on their practices, and “it was realized that a lot of government decisions were not data-driven.”266 Leadership from top state ministries have paved the way for Telangana state services, including the Telangana State Road Transport Corporation (TSRTC), to implement open data using open standards.
In order to organize GTFS feeds of TSRTC buses that provide services to Hyderabad, the state capital, the Telangana government is working with both WRI and Factly, a local startup that focuses on creating platforms and infrastructure to support open data and “strengthen democracy through engagement.”267 Factly and WRI will create static GTFS feeds for both TSRTC buses and the Hyderabad Metro Rail Limited (HMRL). The first step in organizing the TSRTC data was to identify all bus stops by their latitude and longitude coordinates; this was done by combining several data sets that had been compiled over several years from multiple civil society actors, including Hyderabad Urban Lab, Engineers Without Borders, Mufkhamjah College of Engineering and Technology, Shakti Sustainable Development Foundation, and WRI.268 From these multiple efforts, more than 8,000 bus stops were mapped, more than twice the number of actual bus stops.269
Factly and WRI designed a process to validate the bus stop data so that it can be used as a basis for a static GTFS feed. First, spelling inaccuracies had to be corrected and geo-locations had to be cross-checked, with names assigned to the GPS coordinates of the 3,900 bus stops. A developer hired by WRI built a fuzzy mapping algorithm to check and de-duplicate this data, which was then sent to TSRTC to be verified and audited manually270. The verification process has taken over two months, and is still ongoing as of March 2019. Once complete, TSRTC will update schedule data, and Factly and WRI will create the GTFS feed, as well as a mechanism that TSRTC staff can use to make future changes in schedules and routes. Once completed, the data will be ready to be shared in the public domain.271
Thanks to buy-in from top state officials there has been little staff resistance to organizing the GTFS feed.272 The main barriers have been a lack of validated information and a glut of bus stop information, which have been solved through both machine and human validation processes. TSRTC buses do not currently have GPS devices installed, so there are no immediate plans to organize a real-time GTFS feed. However, the involvement of Factly and WRI certainly bodes well for future developments, should TSRTC endeavor to install GPS devices on their vehicles.
Figure 1: Table of public transit data for case study locations in India
|City||Population*||Metro: Static||Metro: Real Time||Bus: Static||Bus: Real Time|
|Kochi||2.81M||Yes, open||No, in process||No||Partially, closed|
|Delhi||28.1M||Yes, closed||Yes, closed||Yes, open||Partially, open|
|Bangalore||11.25M||Yes, closed||Yes, closed||In process||Under negotiation|
|Hyderabad||9.58M||Yes, closed||Yes, closed||In process||No|
* Demographia World Urban Areas,” Demographia, April 2019, accessed March 10, 2019, http://www.demographia.com/db-worldua.pdf
Case Study Discussion
These case studies illustrate the importance of vocal stakeholders, local leadership, and progressive policy. In each city, local champions have emerged from civil society or from within the transit corporation to help lead and shepherd the projects. In Kochi, Bangalore, and Delhi, NGOs or academic institutions have provided labor and technological resources for free or at a very low cost, helping authorities avoid lengthy procurement processes and finding money in already stretched budgets. In Bangalore and Delhi, academics played key roles in influencing city officials to move towards open data, educating officials on the benefits of open data and open standards like GTFS. Both Delhi and Kochi benefitted from political leadership who wanted to show positive change in government services and to increase transparency. In Bangalore, a well-organized civil society is clamoring for transit data, and has the ear of the local press. In Hyderabad, barriers experienced by other cities, such as lack of political will, interest, or budget, have been roundly avoided by the implementation of a state-wide open data policy. These examples show how the leadership of civil society can be a powerful tool in embracing open transit data, and how important of an official state policy it can be with financial resources behind it.
Uses of Open Data
Once data is open and available, agencies can use it to understand their systems and improve their offerings. Transit data can be overlaid with other geospatial data, including population density and housing development, job availability, and employment and education centers.273 In Hyderabad, transit data has been used to show that public transportation options are “infrequent or nearly absent” in the areas of the city where residents are least likely to own or have access to private vehicles, and that they are missing near the city’s slums.274 This analysis of publicly available data shows how transit can be an economic development tool that can break the cycle of poverty. Lack of access to public transportation excludes certain portions of the population from opportunities, making their lives more difficult and expensive, and keeping them in poverty.
Open Transit Data: Not a universal solution
While providing transit data is critical to improving the rider experience, it is not a panacea to solve all transit-related ills. In many cases, comprehensive bus reform is needed to provide drastic improvements in markets where ridership is declining, rider satisfaction is low, and entrenched problems seem insurmountable.275 In Delhi, it is the poor who are most dependent on cheap public transportation, yet they spend 25-30 percent of their income on moving around the city.276 Simply providing these transit riders with more information about when the bus is coming may make their commute less frustrating, but the majority of Delhi’s bus riders do not have the purchasing power to switch to another modality if they get tired of waiting.277 Rather, they will wait for the bus as long as they have to,however crowded it may be. For these riders, knowing when the bus is coming might not be the biggest change they’d request from their transit operator; given the choice, they would probably prioritize more vehicles, more frequent departures, and cheaper fares over digital signage or a smartphone app that communicates arrival times.278
Transit Data: Open best, closed still good
It is also important to note that transit data does not need to be “open,” or publicly available online for free in order to be used for analysis or trip planning. Many agencies choose to organize a GTFS feed, but keep it closed for their own internal analysis and to provide a proprietary mobile or web applications that riders can use to access schedules and trip planners. Transit riders are then only able to use the proprietary application, which provides one point of failure and may be of lower quality than other transit applications. One reason for varying quality is that several of the top transit applications, such as Google Maps and Moovit, are private companies that have invested multiple millions of dollars in their products. It makes sense that the user experience, design, and performance of these applications would be superior to an application created by a city transit agency, no matter the talent and skills of the in-house developers. Additionally, there is little need to reinvent the wheel of building an in-house transit application when publishing a GTFS feed online allows consumers to access multiple applications. It is important to note that smartphone applications are not the only option to provide transit data to consumers, and transit data can be used to create resources like maps and timetables, as well as text or voice-based applications for feature phone users. While open data allows for customers to use more products and researchers to perform more analyses, the first goal should be providing access in order to promote ridership, whether the data itself is open or not.
Suggested Policy Interventions
Despite strong research that shows the benefits of transit data to riders and operators, and organized civil society that clamors for access, too many local governments lag in their provision of data to their communities. What follows are recommendations for policy and capacity building interventions that could help cities provide useful data, thereby promoting the use of mass transit.
National Data Sharing and Accessibility Policy
There are several opportunities to weave transit data into existing policies. First, the National Data Sharing and Accessibility Policy (NDSAP) was implemented in March 2012,279 and soon thereafter the Open Government Data Platform India was launched.280 Despite the NDSAP setting clear expectations for all government agencies to share data in an online format for use by civil society, the policy is not mandatory, and only provides guidelines to central government agencies, and not to state or city government agencies.281 In India, cities have a much closer relationship to the state government than the central government, and city services are often managed by the state government. For this reason, the most effective way to influence urban policy is to influence state policy.
State Open Data Policies
The case of Telangana shows that adapting the NDSAP into state policy provides a clear pathway for open transit data. According to the Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability, as of August 2018, only five of 29 states have instituted their own state-level policy that corresponds to NDSAP or have adopted the NDSAP as state policy.282 While enforcement might be difficult to ensure, given that the national policy itself lacks enforcement mechanisms, expressly including transit data in state open data plans provides clear expectations to cities that transit data be open and freely available. Codifying these expectations into state-level policy will also strengthen the position of both transit activists (like commuters’ groups) and open data organizations and activists (like DataMeet), giving them a policy to refer to as they work to hold local governments and transit operators accountable.
Local, Transit-Specific Open Data Policies
In the absence of a state policy, local, transit-specific open data policies, such as BMTC’s draft policy, would provide a pathway for cities to embrace open data without the express support of the state government. Such policies have the potential to provide leadership from below,283 and could lead to a visible “win” that could demonstrate the value of open data to the lives of everyday residents.284 Releasing transit data on an open standard like GTFS provides the benefit of harnessing the imagination and brainpower of many actors, such as the robust developer and startup community. GTFS also enjoys strong support and interest from civil society, including academics, and large multilateral institutions. Even those who don’t necessarily support GTFS, like Rajarshi Sahai, the former India country manager for transit app startup TRAFI, believe in localized policy: “Policy must evolve out of unique experiences of each city than following templates/exemplars.”285 Codifying open transit data into local public policies would have the dual impact of supporting commuters and transit riders and supplying the potential to spread open data practices amongst all levels of government.
Smart Cities Mission
Transit data could also be couched in existing, and future, Smart Cities policies and projects. Transit on the whole is a focus of the burgeoning Smart Cities movement in India. The focus is to support “urban development through capacity building, research, service, and infrastructure innovations and citizen engagement,” and the central government is actively working with State-level departments and agencies to implement Smart Cities programs.286 A key opportunity to spread the technology tools key to creating open GTFS feeds is the National Urban Innovation Stack (NUIS), a platform to share cloud-based technology services amongst all participating Smart Cities. The NUIS could easily include GTFS creators and management software, in addition to targeted training on open data practices. The NUIS is well positioned to include existing data creation tools, like scripts that convert a city’s transit data from KML or JSON files into GTFS, and GTFS management software. The monetary savings of providing this software centrally would be significant, and would immediately provide tools to 100 cities that would encourage and enable them to organize and publish their transit data. This would also contribute to creating a “culture of data”287 that other cities, such as Medellín, Colombia, have found useful in becoming more data-driven.288 Cities that have invested public funds into developing their own mobile apps could choose to share the source code of these applications, resulting in further savings for cities that want to provide proprietary mobile apps.
National Urban Transport Policy
Lastly, transportation policy itself provides an avenue to compel state and city governments to organize and provide transit data. In the context of rapid urban growth, the Government of India instituted the National Urban Transport Policy (NUTP) in 2006,289 and updated it in 2014.290 A main tenet of the policy is to encourage residents to use public and non-motorized modes through offering financial assistance to state government agencies, as well as providing leadership in order to “guide State-level action plans within an overall framework.”291 The plan acknowledges that state-level policy and laws are the way to improve urban transport, and provides significant financial resources for states to plan and implement public transportation systems. While the NUTP does not explicitly mention open transit data, it does encourage the installation of GPS devices on buses, which make it possible to provide GTFS-Real Time data. A customer-facing data provision that ensures transit riders have access to scheduled and real-time information in a digital format would work towards the ultimate goal of reducing the number of cars on the road, lessening congestion and air pollution. Significantly, the NUTP recommends that each city with more than one million inhabitants set up a Unified Metropolitan Transport Authorities (UMTA).292 These agencies will be charged with integrating different transportation modalities – such as bus, metro trains, and autorickshaws. A key benefit will be the coordination amongst the agencies,293 solving problems like a bus stop that is 200 meters from the Metro entrance, or a bus line running along the same route as the metro.294 UMTAs can support open data by setting standards around data provision and publication, and by requiring all public transportation providers in the metropolitan area to make data available. When systems are fully integrated, it may be possible that some services that make money may subsidize services that are not profitable.295
Alongside policy, stakeholders agree that capacity building amongst local transit corporation staff could have an enormous impact on the provision of open transit data. Capacity building should focus on the dual audiences of decision-makers, who will engage with cost-benefit analyses and budget considerations, and technical staff, who will create, manage, and maintain GTFS feeds. O.P. Agarwal, the CEO of WRI India, believes that officials want to do the right thing, but often don’t have a good understanding of what open data means and entails, despite the phrase being a popular buzzword.296 Helping leaders understand open data, the required effort and cost to convert existing data to open data, and the benefits to ridership, revenue, and rider satisfaction would help these staff to make more informed decisions that would benefit riders.297 Likewise, more technical training and capacity building is needed, as some IT staff lack the knowledge to build an API to provide their data, and others are uninterested in providing data to startups or end users.298 Strong policy, however, will provide both the incentive and reason for capacity building, and will provide a nationwide goal of transit data provision.
The Smart Cities Mission provides an excellent opportunity to include capacity building around open transit data, due to the existing inclusion of both urban mobility as a thematic priority, and a capacity-building mechanism. The new National Urban Learning Portal299 will provide an online portal for city officials to participate in ongoing trainings relevant to Smart Cities.300 Providing a structure for local officials to participate in centrally-endorsed training programs is a good start to spreading good open data practices. As part of the Smart Cities mission, every city has a Chief Data Officer, who could act as a key resource for city staff who are deputized to organize and publish public data. Mobilizing existing resources to help promote open transit data would be relatively low-cost, yet could easily impact hundreds of millions of people.
Lastly, many sources have noted that there are few national convenings that bring together decision-makers from transit corporations, government officials, NGO representatives, activists, and community groups to discuss and learn about these issues. A forum for all stakeholders could help spur innovation and operationalize some of the research and innovation into the mass transit systems.301 These events provide space for each stakeholder group to understand the needs and challenges of the other, and to start to address issues and challenges together. As one Delhi transit official shared, the more minds there are involved in solving a problem, the better the ideas.302
In the absence of a central policy or law with clear flow-down requirements to states and clear enforcement mechanisms, transit data provision will continue to be ad hoc and dependent on civil society’s leadership and resources. In conversation with several transit authority leaders, it became clear that central policies with clear incentives and enforcement mechanisms would spur local transit providers to organize and publish transit data. One official highlighted the importance of buy-in from the highest level of public hierarchies, stating that “water can only be poured from the top.”303 Funding should not be overlooked as part of the policy push, as many civil society groups become involved in open transit data due to financial constraints within the public transit corporation.304 These NGOs are often able to marshal their own resources, or use related grant funding, to perform tasks that ideally would be the responsibility of the local transit corporation. Capacity building efforts that dovetail with existing government programs can help to socialize information about open data and build comfort and interest amongst both decision-makers and technical staff who will implement open data practices in their organizations.
In order to promote public transit usage and better transit systems in general, cities should invest in transit data.
This paper provides suggestions on amendments to existing policies to include open transit data, proposals on capacity building provision, and technology tools geared to state and city transportation corporations. While civil society has proven to be effective in engaging stakeholders and guiding transit corporations towards understanding the value of open transit data, policy interventions would help to shift the responsibility from NGOs, civic hackers, commuter’s groups, and universities to the government agencies themselves. And while NGOs do a great job spurring transit agencies to adopt open data practices, it is not feasible for them to act as the back office for transit agencies in perpetuity.305 In order to promote public transit usage and better transit systems in general, cities should invest in transit data. Not only will this increase rider satisfaction, ridership, and revenue, but it will decrease congestion and pollution,306 bettering the quality of life for residents of Indian cities, and cities worldwide.
Richard Abisla is the Portfolio Manager, Americas at Caravan Studios, a division of TechSoup.
Acknowledgments: The author extends sincere thanks to Kate Owens, Andrea Rizvi, O.P. Agarwal, Charru Malhotra, Srinivas Kodali, Jackie Klopp, Catherine Hurd Johnson, Marnie Webb, Niranjan Krishnamurthi, and to all those who provided invaluable guidance and information for this project. The author is grateful to New America, in particular, Awista Ayub, Melissa Salyk-Virk, and the 2019 India-US Fellows, and to Caravan Studios and TechSoup for this opportunity. All errors and omissions in this paper are the author’s alone. All information was accurate at the time of submission/publication.