Standardisation in roads open data

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This week we have a guest post from Duncan Elder, an Associate with IBI Group and a specialist in transport data, spatial information and customer information systems.

In Part 4 of the series on the Unified API on this blog, Tim discussed TfL’s roads open data and gave guidance on how to build apps using this data. Having worked closely with TfL for some time now, this prompted me to expand upon Tim’s post with a look at a long-standing issue around this kind of data – standardisation.

Whilst it is widely agreed that data held by transport agencies should be made open, there remains a question over how easily this open data can be exchanged and used by various parties. UK public transport agencies have been rather ahead of the curve here, as the exchange of train, bus and tube information is underpinned by the use of standard approaches for describing data, such as exists with NAPTAN and TransXchange, and the equivalents in Europe; Transmodel, IFOPT and NeTex.

This means that in the UK we are used to seeing widely available public transport journey planners and information from a range of different providers, all of which would be unlikely to exist without a standardised approach from the various sources of open data which power these tools.

However, when it comes to roads open data things are much more complex, with the data held by public bodies less centralised, the number of miles of roads much greater than rail, and the number of possible sources of roads data far greater. This includes an increase in the use of crowd-sourced data, in addition to existing sources of road information, which adds to the difficulty in establishing a standardised approach to data provision.

Road data

Open data for roads is a complex proposition, with many more miles of road than rail and a far greater number of possible sources

Developing a standard 

Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, the European Parliament and various Standards groups recognised the need to develop an agreed framework to exchange roads data. Given the geographical and linguistic diversity of Europe, it was clear that there was a need for protocols and standards to control the way that this data was served and consumed. This led to the introduction of a recognised EU standard, known as DATEX.

For the provision of traffic information, the use of this type of standards-based solution has been proven to work well, and for those consuming the information (such as Sat Nav companies), it means that taking up new sources of data can be done far more easily and efficiently if that data is presented in a standardised way.

The current experience

In the UK and Europe, most transport agencies that collect roads data operate an open data policy, and the type of data that is typically published includes planned closures, changes to road operation, live incidents, planned and current road works, current and historic journey times, VMS locations and settings, as well as static data such as the geography of the road network and its infrastructure.

In the UK, major transport agencies like Highways England, Transport Scotland, Welsh Assembly and TfL all publish roads open data which is used by satellite navigation companies, traffic information providers, academic institutions, app developers and others.

TfL shows live incidents, such as in the example here

TfL’s Traffic Status board shows many types of data, including live incidents, such as in the example here

What’s next for roads data?

While consumers of road data generally figure out the best way to collate their data and offer decent products and information to road users, there is still room for improvement and further standardisation will become increasingly important in years to come.

As the number of data sources grow, customers’ expectations of products offering real-time road information also grow, meaning that the provision of accurate, easy to consume data by reliable sources becomes ever more important.

If transport operators are able to meet the challenge of adopting greater standardisation in the exchange of roads data, the result will ultimately be better products in the hands of customers. Those products, the journey-planning apps that drivers will increasingly come to rely on, will benefit from being ever more reliable and accurate.

Standardisation matters then, for at least three reasons:

  1. Transport Operators know their network best. Awareness of an incident, on which a third party can quickly and efficiently add further crowd-sourced data, results in better information reaching the customer.
  2. Precision of geography. Whilst standardisation does not in itself solve the issue of how precisely an incident or event is described or referenced, it can provide a framework that makes details of the incident as clear and accurate as possible.
  3. Richness of data. The greater the volume and extent of data, the greater the challenge of understanding, interpreting and processing it. Standard-based data solutions helps to address these challenges.

We’d love to hear from developers who have worked with roads open data that we, or any other transport operators have provided, to let us know whether you think greater standardisation would be useful. Has a lack of standardised data been a barrier to you when creating apps? How would greater standardisation help you? Please leave us any comments on this subject in the comments section below.

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