Open UK Rail Data: The ORR’s Transparency Conference

On Monday I attended a transparency conference run by the Office of Rail Regulation.

Two years ago I wouldn’t have dreamed I’d end up writing that.  When National Rail Enquiries shut down their Departure Boards API I sensed an industry closed to change, with valuable data in the hands of a clique who saw information as a revenue stream.  Passengers with a desire to know the time of their train were to be exploited rather than helped on on their way.

I’m overjoyed to find that in most of the industry this couldn’t be further from the truth.

 

ORR Transparency Conference

Picture a room filled with people from the railway industry.  Attendees ranged from the MD’s of Train Operating Companies and a member of parliament to transport data firms and bedroom hackers.  All had one thing in common: they want to make railways as easy to use as they can.

It’s harder than this

The image of a fat-cat privatized railway director generated by lazier parts of the press is rubbish.  Everyone I met yesterday was positive, conscientious and hardworking.  Running trains is insanely complicated: they’re pitted in a constant battle against the forces of chaos to run an archaic network safely and on time.  Leaves on the line, people on the line, bits of the line getting nicked, infrastructure breaking down, trade unions, politics, an unsympathetic media – the challenges are immense.  I couldn’t do their job.

Many people spoke about the need for openness yesterday and it wasn’t just lip service.  I get the feeling that when open data people started pestering for access the railways were taken aback – up until now communicating with the public has been a big expense for them and discovering some nerds want to do it for free must have come as a pleasant surprise.

Almost everyone is on board.  Debate continues about how much openness is healthy but nobody seriously questions the utility of sharing data.  Challenges remain in the complexity of their systems and funding new projects but almost everybody is heading in the right direction.

 

So What of NRE?

Toward the end of the day a panel sat and held some very reasoned debate on how to get to a position of greater transparency.  Some made the point that we already have a degree of data sharing.

But almost all of the debate centred around the one thing we don’t yet have: unfettered access to live running data.

The whole open rail data movement really kicked off in November 2010 when NRE started demanding people sign up to an onerous license for access to its Live Departure Boards system (aka. DARWIN).  This is the holy grail for transport data hackers; it has information about when services are scheduled to be but also gets updated to show when they actually are.  In a chaotic world this is invaluable for anyone wishing to share live travel information.

Chris Scoggins – the Chief Executive of NRE and man who’d refused to share their data with me – took the stage to defend his organisation’s position.  To murmurs of disbelief he asserted that he wanted to make NRE’s data feed available to all and sundry at free or low cost but that NRE had to make back the costs of developing DARWIN.  He didn’t justify this with any indication of the costs, and since Network Rail have recently been opening up a flood of data for free via third parties it doesn’t seem very plausible.

Frankly I’d say his “available to all” claim is bollocks. If DARWIN was available to all they wouldn’t have banned me from using it.

Many questions were put to Chris by members of the audience.   They included:

  • For app developers NRE imposes a charge of £1.50 per distributed copy.  This makes it impossible to build free apps (ad-supported != free) and puts everyone in competition with NRE’s own smartphone application.  How can we possibly compete with NRE when outsiders are forced to pay a £1.50 overhead?
  • Some time ago a developer asked NRE’s permission to implement a new feature – “push” notifications for smartphone users.  One can see how this would be useful.  The request languished in NRE’s feature queue until – lo and behold – NRE went ahead and used it for their own app.  How can it possibly be fair that NRE implements other people’s ideas without permitting them to do it themselves?

 

At the end of the talk I had the opportunity to ask a question of my own.  After Chris Scoggins had said his piece on how open NRE are with their data, I read out part of the letter he wrote me in January 2011 refusing my license appeal:

“Your blog posts are clearly intended to give NRE a poor reputation and, even if you held a license, would be in breach of its terms and conditions. Such actions are not that of a reputable and reliable partner with whom we could work to promote rail travel.”

 

I asked Chris how he could possibly claim NRE were “open” with the data when he’d said – in writing – that they wouldn’t share it with me because I’d criticised them.

He didn’t have a good answer.

 

The Way Forward

The Office of Rail Regulation have been investigating the issues around open rail data and one of the results is a new, impartial appeals process for the data from DARWIN.  I intend to follow this and try to get permission to use the API again.

NRE has proven to be a very negative organisation and doubt they ‘get’ the value of sharing data with anyone who wants it.  An impartial appeals process may prevent them using licensing to punish critics, but they’ll still have an unfair advantage by charging independent app developers for access to the data feed.

One potential solution is for the data to be made available from another source.  This will level the playing field: NRE can go on publishing their app while the rest of us can build ours without being beholden to them.  At best such a source would be free to all users; otherwise it should be presented to all everyone at the same cost.

Regulators can’t make changes without public opinion on their side and the ORR have an ongoing consultation on Real Time Train Information.  If you want to see travel data supplied fairly to all please, please respond to them.

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