In my job at the Open Data Institute I sometimes talk with people, from businesses and governments, about how better use of data can help them design and deliver better services. I’ve been using a public sector example recently that I’ve not written down. Here it is.
Ways to get bus timetable data to people who need it
The example I use is bus timetables. People need to know the times and routes of buses so they can make a journey and get to their destination. When I use the example I talk through four of the patterns that can be seen in many cities and towns around the world for services that get bus timetable data to people who need it.
- Mass market private sector services: many cities and towns now have bus timetables available as open data. Private sector services like Google Maps, Apple Maps and CityMapper pick up this data and build it into a service which they aim at the mass market of smartphone users. The services work in many cities and might haveother features such as information about restaurants and pubs. They get their open bus timetable data either directly or through a data aggregator, like TransportAPI or ITOWorld, who collate data from multiple cities / transport providers. That takes aways some of the effort from using open data and makes it easier for more people to build services.
- Targeted private/public sector services: smart cities and towns recognise that the mass market services don’t always meet all needs, particularly accessibility. If you look closely you can often find small bits of public services meeting the needs of some users, or a transport authority running a challenge to help focus the private sector market on meeting particular user needs. Left to its own devices the private sector might only target the profitable and easy-to-serve mass market, a challenge can help change that to build more accessible services or to experiment with new technologies like AI or voice interfaces. Targeted services often use the same data aggregators as the mass market services. It’s the same data, just presented for a different set of user needs.
3. LocalBusTimes: a local website and/or smartphone app where people can look up the timetables for a journey they want to make. It might be for a whole town or a single bus company. It probably started by only providing bus timetable data, nowadays I think more of them recommend a route. The local authority or bus company typically run the LocalBusTimes service themselves.
4. Physical services: not everyone has or uses a smartphone when they need bus timetable data. There are many reasons for this. To give just a few: there might be no coverage, they might not be able to afford a smartphone, they might have run out of credit/data, they might not want a smartphone, their city might not have made bus timetable data available or they might simply have run out of battery. That’s why bus stations have information desks, why bus stops have timetables printed and stuck to them and why people ask other people “when’s the next bus?” on the street. Someone has used the bus timetable data as part of the design for the bus stop or as part of designing an operational process to help a human answer another human’s questions.
Some of the reactions I get to my example
No one, yet…, has told me that my example is stupid or dull. Feel free to be first to do that.
When I talk through this example with people the usual reaction is that while lots of people knew about the transport sector and data few people had thought of all the patterns or wondered about how they could be applied to their work in another sector.
Most people had used the mass market services but very few people had thought of using the market, in this case through open data and challenges, to help them meet their own goals. Those that had thought that they risked losing control to the market and hadn’t realised that they could still discover if user needs were being met — for example through user research — and could use a variety of ways to shape the market to target unmet needs. Challenges are just one of the ways to do that. Governments can legislate. Both businesses and governments can use procurement, strike deals, make different types of data more open, either fully open or in a more controlled way through APIs, or lots of other forms of soft power to shape the market around them.
I also find that few people had thought of the physical services pattern as part of the overall service. I find that sad. It also shows that I’m in a bit of a bubble and exposed to only some views. The tech world is overly focussed on services that end in smartphones and websites. I expect/hope that’s a passing phase.
Why I’m writing this down now
I’m writing this down now because I’ve been using the example for a while. It’s good to publish it to get my thinking straight, to show some of the reactions I get and to learn from new reactions. As I often say, data is becoming infrastructure that will be as open as possible. Businesses and governemnts need to adapt to that future. They have different goals, and needs for democratic accountability, but can learn from and collaborate with each other. I’m expecting to do some more work on public sector service delivery models over the next few months. It’s good to share, even shoddy, thinking early. It’ll help make that work better.