Tag Archives: translink

The Economics of Open Data – Mini-Case, Transit Data & TransLink

TransLink, the company that runs public transit in the region where I live (Vancouver/Lower Mainland) has launched a real time bus tracking app that uses GPS data to figure out how far away the next the bus you are waiting for really is. This is great news for everyone.

Of course for those interested in government innovation and public policy it also leads to another question. Will this GPS data be open data?

Presently TransLink does make its transit schedule “open” under a non-commercial license (you can download it here). I can imagine a number of senior TransLink officials (and the board) scratching their head asking: “Why, when we are short of money, would we make our data freely available?”

The answer is that TransLink should make its current data, as well as its upcoming GPS data, open and available under a license that allows for both non-commercial and commercial re-use, not just because it is the right thing to do, but because the economics of it make WAY MORE SENSE FOR TRANSLINK.

Let me explain.

First, there are not a lot of obvious ways TransLink could generate wealth directly from its data. But let’s take two possible opportunities: the first involves selling a transit app to the public (or advertising in such an app), the second is through selling a “next bus” service to companies (say coffee shops or organizations) that believe showing this information might be a convenience to their employees or customers.

TransLink has already abandoned doing paid apps – instead it maintains a mobile website at m.translink.ca – but even if it created an app and charged $1 per download, the revenue would be pitiful. Assuming a very generous customer base of 100,000 users, TransLink would generate maybe $85,000 dollars (once Apple takes its cut from the iPhone downloads, assuming zero cut for Androids). But remember, this is not a yearly revenue stream, it is one time. Maybe, 10-20,000 people upgrade their phone, arrive in Vancouver and decide to download every year. So your year on year revenue is maybe $15K? So over a 5 year period, TransLink ends up with an extra, say $145,000 dollars. Nothing to sneeze at, but not notable.

In contrast a free application encourages use. So there is also a cost to not giving it away. It could be that, having transit data more readily available might cause some people to choose taking transit over say, walking, or taking a taxi or driving. Last year TransLink handled 211.3 million trips. Let’s assume that more accessible data from wider access to the data meant there was a .1% increase in the number of trips. An infinitesimally small increase – but it means 211,300 more trips. Assuming each rider pays a one zone $2.50 fare that would still translate in an additional revenue of $528,250. Over the same five year period cited above… that’s revenue of $2.641M, much better than $145,000. And this is just calculating money. Let’s say nothing of less congested roads, less smog and a lower carbon footprint for the region…

When the this analysis is applied to licensing data it produces the same result. Will UBC pay to have TransLink’s real time data on terminals in the Student Union building? I doubt it. Would some strategically placed coffee shops… possibly. Obviously organizations would have to pay for the signs, but adding on annual “data license fee” to display’s cost would cause some to opt out. And once you take into account managing the signs, legal fees, dealing with the contract and going through the sales process, it is almost inconceivable that TransLink would make more money from these agreements than it would from simply having more signs everywhere created by other people that generated more customers for its actual core business: moving people from A to B for a fee. Just to show you the numbers, if shops that weren’t willing to pay for the data put up “next bus” screens that generated a mere 1000 new regular bus users who did only 40 one way trips a year (or 40,000 new trips), this would equal revenue of $100,000 every year at no cost to translink. Someone else could install and maintain the signs, no contracts or licenses would need to be managed.

From a cost recovery perspective it is almost impossible to imagine a scenario where TransLink is better off not allowing commercial re-use of its data.

My point is that TransLink should not be focused on creating a few bucks from licensing its data (which it doesn’t do right now anyway). It should be focused on shifting the competitive value in the marketplace from access to accessibility.

Being the monopoly holder of transit data does not benefit TransLink. All it means is that fewer people see and engage with its data. When it makes the data open and available “access” no longer becomes the defining advantage. When anybody (e.g. TransLink, Google, independent developers) can access the data, the market place shifts to competing on access to competing on accessibility. Consumers don’t turn to who has the data, they turn to who makes the data easiest to use.

For example, Translink has noted that in 2011 it will have a record number of trips. Part of me wonders to what degree the increase in trips over the past few years is a result of making transit data accessible in Google Maps. (Has anyone done a study on this in any jurisdiction?) The simple fact is that Google maps is radically easier to use for planning transit journeys than Translink’s own website AND THAT IS A GOOD THING FOR TRANSLINK. Now imagine if lots of companies were sharing translink’s data? The local Starbucks and Blenz Coffee, to colleges and universities and busy buildings downtown. Indeed, the real crime right now is that Translink has handed Google a defacto monopoly. It is allowed to use the data for commercial re-use. Local tax-paying developers…? Not so according to the license they have to click through.

Translink, you want a world where everyone is competing (including against you) on accessibility. In the end… you win with greater use and revenue.

But let me go further. There are other benefits to having Translink share its data for commercial re-use.


Some riders will note that there are already bus stops in Vancouver which display “next bus” data (e.g. how many minutes away the next bus is). If TransLink made its next bus data freely available via an API it could conceivably alter the procurement process for buying and maintaining these signs. Any vendor could see how the data is structured and so take over the management of the signs, and/or experiment with creating more innovative or cheaper ways of manufacturing them.

The same is true of creating the RFP for TransLink’s website. With the data publicly available, TransLink could simple ask developers to mock up what they think is the most effective way of displaying the data. More development houses might be enticed to respond to the RFP increasing the likelihood of innovations and putting downward pressure of fees.


Of course, making GPS data free could have an additional benefit. Local news companies might be able to use the bus’s GPS data to calculate traffic flow rates and so predict traffic jams. Might they be willing to pay TransLink for the data? Maybe, but again probably not enough to justify the legal and sales overhead. Moreover, TransLink would benefit from this analysis – as it could use the reports to adjust its schedule and notify its drivers of problems beforehand. Of course everyone would benefit as well as better informed commuters might change their behaviour (including taking transit!) reducing congestion, smog, carbon footprint, etc…

Indeed, the analysis opportunities using GPS data are potentially endless – much of which might be done by bloggers and university students. One could imagine correlating actual bus/subway times with any other number of data sets (crime, commute times, weather) that could yield interesting information that could help TransLink with its planning. There is no world where TransLink has the resources to do all this analysis, so enabling others to do it, can only benefit it.


So if you are at TransLink/Coast Mountain Bus Company (or any transit authority in the world), this post is for you. Here’s what I suggest as next steps:

1) Add GPS bus tracking API to your open data portal.

2) Change your license. Drop the non-commercial part. It hurts your business more than you realize and is anti competitive (why does can Google use the data for a commercial application while residents of the lower mainland cannot?). My suggestion, adopt the BC Government Open Government License or the PDDL.

3) Add an RSS feed to your GTFS data. Like Google, we’d all like to know when you update your data. Given we live here and are users, it be nice to extend the same service to us as you do them.

4) Maybe hold a Transit Data Camp where you could invite local developers and entrepreneurs to meet your staff and encourage people to find ways to get transit data into the hands of more Lower Mainlanders and drive up ridership!



Carbon Chaos – Celebrating the Launch of an iPhone App

At the beginning of September Gerri Sinclair and I began scheming around me working with a group of her students at the Centre for Digital Media on a project. My initial idea didn’t pan out (more on that in another post) but the students pitched a new idea, one the maintained the original idea of a game that would be fun and that would carry an environmental message.

The result?

Carbon Chaos – an iPhone game designed and built to be fun while educating those who download it about the various advantages and activities of Translink – the transit authority here in the Greater Vancouver area.

And so, with a ton of pride in the students who worked really long hours to create this in a few short weeks here is some beautiful art work they created…

And here is what the game looks like in action…

In short order I hope to share what I learned from the experience and from the students who worked on this (lots of interesting lessons). Needless to say the students deserve infinite praise and I’m eternally grateful to have had the chance to work with them. Amazing, every last one of them. Big thank you’s should also go to their faculty adviser Patrick Pennfather. And finally I know everyone is grateful to TransLink, who sponsored this application and gave it a home. A forward looking organization TransLink, one thinking hard about how technology can transform it – first they opened up their google transit API to the public, then they launched a partnership with Four Square (making each station and a bus a location where you can check in) and of course, they were willing to engage some students on a game they built.

Never, in all my dreams growing up and playing games did I believe that I might one day be a video game producer. Fun, fun, fun. If you have an iPhone, hope you get a chance to download it and see what some emerging developers were able to code up.

Creating a City of Vancouver that thinks like the web

Last November my friend Mark Surman – Executive Director of the Mozilla Foundation – gave this wonderful speech entitled “A City that Thinks Like the Web” as a lunchtime keynote for 300 councillors, tech staff and agency heads at the City of Toronto’s internal Web 2.0 Summit.

During the talk the Mayor of Toronto took notes and blackberried his staff to find out what had been done and what was still possible and committed the City of Toronto to follow Mark’s call to:

  1. Open our data. transit. library catalogs. community centre schedules. maps. 311. expose it all so the people of Toronto can use it to make a better city. do it now.
  2. Crowdsource info gathering that helps the city.  somebody would have FixMyStreet.to up and running in a week if the Mayor promised to listen. encourage it.
  3. Ask for help creating a city that thinks like the web. copy Washington, DC’s contest strategy. launch it at BarCamp.

The fact is every major city can and should think like the web. The first step is to get local governments to share (our) data. We, collectively as a community, own this data and could do amazing things with it, if we were allowed. Think of how Google Maps is now able to use Translink data to show us where bus stops are, what buses stop there and when the next two are coming!

Google Map Transit YVR

Imagine if anyone could create such a map, mashing up a myriad of data from local governments, provincial ministries, StatsCan? Imagine the services that could be created, the efficiencies gained, the research that would be possible. The long tail of public policy analysis could flourish with citizen coders, bloggers, non-profits and companies creating ideas, services, and solutions the government has neither the means nor the time to address.

If the data is the basic food source of such an online ecosystem then having it categorized, structured and known is essential. The second step is making it available as APIs. Interestingly the City of Vancouver appears to have taken that first step. VanMaps is a fascinating project undertaken by the City of Vancouver and I encourage people to check it out. It is VERY exciting that the city has done this work and more importantly, made it visible to the public. This is forward thinking stuff. The upside is that, in order to create VanMaps all the data has been organized. The downside is that – as far as I can tell – the public is restricted to looking at, but not accessing, the data. That means integrating these data sets with Google maps, or mashing it up with other data sets is not possible (please correct me if I’ve got it wrong).

Indeed, in VanMaps Terms of Use suggests that even if the data were accessible, you aren’t allowed to use it.

VanMaps EULA

Item 4 is worth noting. VanMap may only be used for internal business or personal purposes. My interpretation of this is that any Mashups using VanMap data is verboten.

But let’s not focus on that for the moment. The key point is that creating a Vancouver that thinks like the web is possible. Above all, it increasingly looks like the IT infrastructure to make it happen may already be in place.

Urban Public Transit Done Right

Metronauts, eat your hearts out. :)

Was back in Vancouver yesterday. It was a glorious day – the kind that you write in your blog about. Anyway, rode the bus downtown for several meetings and noticed this sign:

text a bus sched

In short, you can now text “33333” + the identifying number found on every bus stop in Vancouver and… the arrival times of the next 6 scheduled buses will be texted to you.

Now this schedule is probably static and does not adjust for the fact that specific buses may be running late, caught in traffic, blown a tire, etc… But it is a start.

Anything that gives transit users more information is a good thing, especially if that means it will raise their expectations around the timeliness and predictability of service (as I suspect this will). A traffic that is more demanding of its public transport is more invested in its public transport.

I can already see the logical next step… Imagine a transit user sends a text to find out when the next bus will arrive. When that bus (and possibly the subsequent bus) fails to show up he/she starts looking for a complaints or information line to call. Their expectation is going to be that the person on the other end of the line can answer the question: “Where is my bus.” The obvious conclusion to this scenario – take the GPS emitters that are on every bus and open up their API’s so that we can all see where they are. It is going to rock transit users’ worlds when they can open up google maps on their phones and search “Vancouver, Transit, 22” and see the current location of all the 22 buses.

Translink you’ve opened a pandora’s box of expectations for this user. It is a good first step.

[BTW: Transit geeks in Vancouver should already be reading this blog, which, of course, was on the case long before me. Long live the long tail of blogs.]