consumer experience, mobile applications, social media

Open Sesame – how public data stimulates innovation

open sesame ..and into the light

Open data is widely spoken of as A Good Thing in the technology world, important in the meteoric rise of the Android mobile Operating System and vital in broadly sharing wealth.

Android’s open source nature has helped produce a burgeoning ecosystem of applications and services, although it’s still playing catchup to Apple’s App Store. An indie-hit application, Simon Maddox’s 0870 was based on freely available data, and Simon himself was happy to show where the data could be accessed.

Now others from across technical and non-technical sectors are looking to emulate the success and reap the benefits of Open data: benefits which can directly impact those who free the data, allowing them to concentrate on their own expertise, as well as those who access it.

At the Mobile Data Association’s recent Mobile and the 2012 Games seminar, Transport for London’s Vernon Everitt explained the wide-reaching benefits of its open data policy, freeing travel information for independent developers to create their own applications, improving the experience of travelling around the capital.

By opening up APIs with real-time data feeds, such as live departure board times or location data for Barclays Cycle Hire docking stations, mobile application developers can access dynamic data for creative new services to be packaged around.

This week TfL unveiled an updated Web Developers’ Area, replete with free travel information for mobile application developers.  Free-to-use information now gives developers the ability to update existing apps, and create new ones allowing passengers to check their routes whilst on the go.

The latest addition is a live Tube travel news feed known as Trackernet, which shows the location of trains across the London Underground network at any time.

Other information in the area includes:

• Live traffic disruptions
• Realtime road message signs
• Barclays Cycle Hire docking station locations
• Timetable of planned weekend Tube improvement works
• Station locations (for Tube, Docklands Light Railway and London Overground)
• River Thames pier locations
• Find-a-ride (licensed private hire operators)
• Oyster Ticket Stop locations.

Live travel information has been made available thanks to collaboration between TfL and Microsoft, creating a robust Azure Cloud platform to host data in a way that will meet the expected demand from thousands of developers.

Transport for London Developers’ Area

It should be acknowledged that harnessing ‘open’ data isn’t failsafe. There can certainly be risks associated with a service that depends on the consistent uptime of an uncontrollable API, but the benefits outweigh it. After all, we all forgive the occasional glitch in mobile signal and we’re used to patchiness in technology, however irritating it can be.

With Open Data initiatives like TfL’s flourishing, the hope is that other public sectors and council services such as libraries will follow suit.

Online services for public libraries are developing. While their presentation might appear dated, as well as being able to reserve and renew items, Cardiff Library also tells you who your favourite authors are. There’s huge social potential to be gained in freeing such data, with the user’s permission.

As technology services and applications evolve, an internal cultural shift needs to happen within public sector. While precaution with private data should remain paramount, (TfL’s Oyster card data is still kept under the proverbial lock and key), less fear should be exercised with non-sensitive public service data.

Finding ways of packaging publicly accessible information into usable APIs will ensure we all benefit through improved, immediate 21st Century services.