On Sunday I wrote this post about how National Rail ordered me to shutdown my free train times application and intend to charge users of their UK “Live Departure Boards” data feed. Responses from readers were positive and I’ve been put in touch with a few groups who’re equally appalled. In the last couple of days I’ve been chasing up the issue.
Here are some examples of the way other railways deal with openness:
- Bay Area Rapid Transit System in San Francisco poster encouraging developers innovate new products around its API.
- Tfl (okay, they’ve had some bad press lately but their intentions are good)
- The Swiss railway’s data is so open you can even see their trains whizzing around on Google Maps!
Consensus is that train times are best disseminated as widely and openly as possible. The more chance us folks have of finding a train the likelier we are to ride on it. Keeping the details of train times a secret or charging people for non-profitmaking uses is perverse and a retrograde step from when they were supplied freely to the public through an API.
1) The Chief Executive
One helpful commenter alerted me to a letter from National Rail Enquiries’ chief Executive published in this month’s Wired magazine. It was a response to an editorial piece in September where Wired were very critical of National Rail’s attitude to their data feeds.
With Wired’s permission I’m reproducing it here. Since it’s been published in a national magazine I don’t believe it counts as confidential, but if National Rail Enquiries decide it is (more on that later) I’m sure Wired will host their own copy.
In it Chris sings the praises of his organisation’s “open” data policies saying they’ve opened up data to “a range of” organisations, “often free of charge”.
I am not one of these lucky organisations, so my simple train times application is still broken.
His letter does not say how many have been ordered to quit using the data feeds in the last few days – I’d be fascinated to see a figure. I bet it’s larger than the number of licenses they’ve granted. Were the Association of Train Operating Companies a publicly owned body I could submit a Freedom of Information request and get a precise figure, but sadly they are not. They seem to feel they’re accountable to nobody but the reality is that they are regulated by the Office of Rail Regulation.
The Office of Rail Regulation investigated ATOC’s monopoly of the data a year ago and concluded there was the potential to stifle innovation around it. From their report:
“ATOC has total control over the supply of RTTI [real-time travel information] and as a result, to a very great extent, over what the future market will look like in terms of what products and services consumers will ultimately enjoy. This in turn means that ATOC has a special responsibility to avoid allowing its market power to distort the market it supplies so that consumers’ interests are not prejudiced”
Chris Scoggins writes a blog of his own so on Sunday evening I posted a comment on its most recent entry to try and bring the problem to his attention…
I’d like to bring the problems with the Live Departure Boards API to your attention. I’ve explained the saga on my blog at http://mocko.org.uk/b/2010/10/29/national-rail-have-killed-my-train-times-app/.
Essentially – despite being told in no uncertain terms last year (in writing, pdf linked from the blog post) that the LDB feed was for noncommercial use only I’ve been told by Derek Parlour that I must shut down my public app, likely pay for a license and that “licenses have always been required”. How can this possibly square with National Rail Enquiries’ refusal to license the feed for commercial purposes a year ago?
Derek’s response goes completely against your letter on National Rail’s commitment to open data feeds published in this month’s Wired magazine. I’d really appreciate it if you’d look into the matter.
Openness? What openness.
This morning Chris replied via email since my message was off-topic for the blog. I’m grateful to him for doing so; no doubt he’s busy and it’s encouraging that a chief executive would take the time to engage with a random schmuck like me.
I would like to print Chris’s reply here but sadly I cannot. In it Chris admonished me for publicising Derek’s email. He claims emails sent by National Rail Enquiries are confidential, although I’m hard-pushed to find any confidential information in the three lines of Derek’s text I used in my last post. I’ve asked some legal experts and I’m told that since there’s nothing particularly confidential about what Derek told me it shouldn’t be a worry – it was already public knowledge that ATOC were requiring licenses of the API’s users (it’s on their website) and easy to infer a cost was likely.
They did have (paraphrased) boilerplate text at the bottom saying “this is confidential and meant for the addressee only; unless you’re the recipient you can’t disclose it” but since I was the recipient I inferred this as meaning I was allowed to use the contents. Sadly Chris tells me in no uncertain terms that I am not permitted to disclose the contents of any emails from National Rail Enquiries without their written permission. The text itself, however, seems to indicate differently.
This really is a funny kind of openness.
It feels like I’m being intimidated out of discussing this any more for fear of legal action. Am I even allowed to talk about what National Rail have told me or is this some blanket, quasi-legal gagging order? If I discuss it any further will the police be sent to kick down my door?
This afternoon I asked Chris:
“Could you clarify that a bit more? Am I banned from directly quoting emails with National Rail Enquiries or from publicly discussing their contents at all?”
…but I haven’t had an answer yet.
2) Licensing the Data
I had a few more communications with Derek about the history of the feed’s licensing. I don’t think they contain any trade secrets or confidential information but out of courtesy to Chris’s request I won’t share them. Suffice to say we rather disagree on what “open” means.
The National Rail Enquiries line appears to be that while the data was freely supplied to the public from their API any semblance of openness was an accident. Anybody who used it without an explicit license was breaking the terms & conditions, however obscure or ill-enforced they were. I cannot rightly conceive how one would create a high-traffic public data API then accidentally leave it online for years with comprehensive documentation and written letters from prospective users to remind you it’s there, but there we go.
In further emails I’ve re-raised the question about whether they really mean I have to shut down an application that was providing a useful public service:
“Unfortunately it seems you’re still evading my question about shutting down the app. For the third time – even though my application was providing a useful service which helped rail users and must have caused negligible load on your infrastructure, do you still insist that I shut it down right now or can I keep it open while we discuss licensing options?”
I’ve asked that three times now and each time it’s been sidestepped. [Is it confidential that someone hasn’t answered a question?]
Even if I wanted to talk about these I couldn’t – none have so far been offered. I’ve asked twice but National Rail Enquiries have gone very quiet on the subject.
3) Summing Up
I don’t think my application’s going to be back anytime soon. While nobody has said how much a license would cost I know it’ll probably be paid-for and given my app was a free service I won’t be able to afford one.
Are the data feed or the organisation providing it in any way open? Make up your own mind on that. Is innovation being stifled? Certainly.
I don’t expect to hear more from National Rail Enquiries on the subject. While they’re paying lip service to “open” data the reality is very, very different.
[Edit: I’ve setup a page where you be listed if you’ve applied for a license. This should help us keep tabs on how many are actually granted. The post about it is here.]