Open Data Standards for Improving Mobility

Open Data Standards for Improving Mobility Image credit: TAM America

TAM America had the privilege of conducting an interview with Eric Plosky, Executive Director at MobilityData, and is pleased to share his insights on how open data standards can benefit passengers, system operators, and private industry in improving and expanding mobility services.

Please tell us about MobilityData and your role there.

MobilityData is a unique organization: we’re a global nonprofit dedicated to open transportation-data standards. If you ever use an app to tell you when the next train is coming, where the closest bus routes are, or how you can find a nearby shared bike or scooter, you’re part of our world. It’s a privilege to lead a group of such talented, passionate people: our team really cares about what we do! I bring a deep background in public service, with an entrepreneurial bent, as well as some experience teaching a Harvard graduate class in transportation and sustainability. I’d like to think we’re a good match!

What is MobilityData’s vision? What initiatives are underway to achieve this vision?

We believe that everyone in the world should have access to safe, reliable, sustainable, empowering transportation options, so that they can lead their best lives. Travelers want information they can trust, using platforms – apps – of their choice. That requires high-quality, standardized data, and the ability to use it thoughtfully, consistently, and transparently. Therefore, we need data standards, like the General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS) and the General Bikeshare Feed Specification (GBFS), both of which MobilityData manages. We’re also involved in a number of related efforts, all aimed ultimately at making sure travelers have the best information available.

The Transit ITS Data Exchange Specification (TIDES) covers operations data, including vehicle location data, passenger count data, and fare transaction data, so that agencies can have better information about ridership, passenger loads, fare revenue, vehicle speed and delay, and service reliability. The Transit Operational Data Standard (TODS) extends GTFS to include more information about personnel and non-revenue service. The overarching Mobility Data Interoperability Principles (MDIP) establish a vision for the transit industry in which all data is communicated by interoperable technology components using open standards.

What are the benefits of data standards?

Data standards can help travelers get consistent, reliable information about their transportation options: for instance, when is the next bus coming? Which routes am I near right now? System operators can also benefit, not just by increasing ridership and rider satisfaction, but by improving the efficiency of their services, better matching them to demand: data can illuminate where people are going, where they want to go, and when, allowing operators to make informed decisions. The private sector, including vendors and consultants, benefits from a single market that can include all players, leading to new business opportunities and potentially new business models. Data standards really are a win for everyone.

Why is open development important? What are the advantages of this approach?

Open development means that anyone in our community can participate in the advancement and governance of the data standards we manage. This means we can have transparent, truly global information exchange, informed by real needs and use cases. Data producers and data consumers are involved from the start by definition, which makes everything we do practical, rather than theoretical, with immediate application. Problems, and new opportunities, can be more easily identified since the code and documentation are readily available, and they can be more easily, quickly, and effectively addressed, by harnessing the power of an engaged worldwide community. It’s an impressive group!

What about the shared-mobility sector? What are the opportunities and challenges there?

It’s amazing how the sector has grown since I took my first Vélib' ride in Paris about 15 years ago. So much has been accomplished! But in many ways it feels like we’re still in the first phase of this work, which has such tremendous potential. Vehicle technology has advanced so rapidly; the electric bikes and scooters of today, for instance, are vastly superior to the ones of only a few years ago. Plus, since this is all so new, we’re still trying to figure out traveler preferences, and what shapes them. By the time we absorb all of the lessons from the pandemic, everything may have changed yet again. It’s exciting to see the experimentation with new services and new business models, and our team is thrilled that our ongoing GBFS work underpins a lot of the progress that’s being made. GBFS v3.0 was released just this year and we hope it enables shared mobility to continue evolving.

What is GTFS-Flex? How can it be used to improve demand-responsive services?

Flex, which as of April is now a part of GTFS, allows transit riders to discover demand-responsive services, since it allows geographical information to be represented far more flexibly than “traditional” fixed-route GTFS. This enables trip planners to provide information about dial-a-ride services, routes that are generally fixed but allow for deviations or detours to pick up or drop off passengers, point-to-zone services, and point-deviation or “checkpoint services” that allow for boarding or alighting anywhere among an unordered list of stops. Because this functionality means that riders may be able to make better use of services that already exist, demand may increase, and so we’re hoping that service providers can expand or even start new flexible transit services with the confidence that they will be effectively used. It’s even possible that entirely new kinds of service patterns could emerge, since Flex enables much more sophisticated communications with riders.

What would you say to transit agencies seeking low-cost and reliable technology solutions to provide real-time passenger information and to improve their operations?

Talk to us! Our community is eager to help, especially as the landscape continues to change. For instance, the Federal Transit Administration will now require all U.S. transit agencies to publish GTFS datasets – this is an incredible endorsement of GTFS, and a validation of our open, traveler-focused, use-case-based development approach. And, of course, you can become a MobilityData member, which will help support us going forward, and means that my team and I will be especially eager to meet you – say, at our upcoming 2024 Global Summit!