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Crowd-sourced apps are a two-way street for transport agencies

Crowd-sourced apps for transport agencies

Crowd-sourced data from transit apps are helping make smarter infrastructure decisions and improve customer services | 🕒 6-min read.


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While smartphone-toting commuters are embracing crowd-sourced apps in order to keep updated about bus schedules and potential traffic jams, government agencies are discovering how they too can ‘hitch a ride’ on such technologies to access transport data that will ultimately aid in smarter infrastructure decision-making and improved customer experiences.

Crowd-sourcing re-maps the transport grid

Traditional methods of communicating with transportation users, such as paper maps and flashing signs, are quickly being replaced by ‘crowd sourced’ applications that tailor their services and alerts to a user’s location, route, and transportation preferences.

The growth of these technologies is disrupting the historic transportation dynamic between agency and public, evolving it into a nascent, three-party relationship between application developer, user/general public, and government agency – be it a department of transportation, transit agency, or municipality.

These apps, such as Waze, Inrix, and Citymapper, rely heavily on real-time, often user-generated, data. While some apps are crowd-sourced from commuters reporting incidents via the apps, others source real-time transport data (schedules and incidents) from databases maintained by public authorities.

Given the mounting pressures and economic impacts of traffic congestion and aging infrastructure, transportation and transit agencies are looking for ways to use data-driven insights to make ‘smarter’ asset management decisions. In the midst of the buzzing landscape of interactive apps, crowd-sourced data provides an opportunity to mine this data to understand the needs of those who actually use this infrastructure. If seized upon, an agency’s efforts can translate into improved rider or driver satisfaction and maximized, but sustainable asset utilization.

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Benefits of public-private crowd-sourced partnerships

Approximately 115 agencies in the United States, and a number of agencies in the United Kingdom and Canada, have developed partnerships with application companies. The relationship can be a two-way street – while transportation agencies gain access to real-time traffic information, the applications also receive input from public data sources to which they may not normally have access.

The benefits of public-private partnerships are many:

  • Comprehensive and affordable data-sharing: These new technologies can replace traditionally inefficient and costly methods for transportation analysis with a more affordable solution. For example, traditionally, public agencies collected traffic data using fixed sensors and cameras, and disseminated the information through a variety of public channels, resulting in variations in data quality, accuracy, and timeliness from one agency to the next. In addition, crowd-sourced application data can be collected in areas where it was previously impossible to do so, either for financial or logistical reasons, For example, user activity on arterial streets, buses, light rail, and sidewalks can now be tracked and monitored by multiple metrics.
  • Increased network efficiencies: For local governments, real-time information from drivers can enable public agencies to better understand how their services and infrastructure are consumed by commuters. By better understanding use patterns, these agencies can design infrastructure that may be more efficient. For instance, route data from thousands of drivers can reveal the impacts of ongoing construction, allowing transportation agencies to adjust signal timing in real-time to reduce congestion. In terms of public transportation, crowd-sourcing data can be fed into powerful analysis tools to improve service quality and standards. For example, transit agencies have used KPMG’s Analytics and Visualization Environment platform to increase ridership while decreasing relative cost. Using KAVE, bus occupancy and asset data was processed to calculate the impacts to ridership, service frequency, and maintenance costs by hypothetical modifications to vehicles and bus stops. Going further, the tool incorporated multiple scenarios—rush hour for example—to the calculations, giving the agency in-depth insights to determine appropriate number of buses, stops, and planned maintenance activities.
  • Real-Time Communication: Today, tech-savvy citizens demand the same seamless and digital services from transportation agencies as they experience in other sectors. These applications can improve traditional communication between drivers and transit riders and their respective agency, bringing personalized real-time alerts, re-routing, and trip forecasts straight onto their smartphone. ‘
  • Improved customer experience: Government agencies can use the data captured to inform future experience and service design to better meet the needs of users and improve the end-to-end customer experience. For example, agency-sourced, real-time data on transit vehicle location, street parking availability, and highway and street traffic conditions could give users complete estimates for time and cost. Integrating these data sources with private ridesharing and parking apps could also empower users to take multi-modal journeys that maximize their personal preferences for comfort, savings, and speed. In addition, businesses and merchants, such as retailers, can partner with public or private applications to deliver notices or advertisements to users depending on their geographical location. Users would stand to benefit by receiving information tailored specifically to them, allowing them to patronize a local merchant or avoid a service closure on their usual route. In the long term, this data collection and utilization method can create an environment of compounding benefits—where detailed data improves network efficiency (and user satisfaction), returning more detailed data, which can improve further network efficiencies.

Speed bumps on the road to harnessing crowd-sourced data

While crowd-sourced transport data yields much potential, governments and public agencies face a number of equally-sophisticated challenges to utilize and integrate this data into their existing systems:

  • Ensuring data reliability: Since these applications are focused on “gamified” user-generated data “and not on traffic predictions”, users can fake certain elements, such as faking traffic accidents in an attempt to divert traffic. While applications are often smart enough to identify, and eliminate, fake alerts, for the purposes of city planning and traffic engineering, the technology’s reliability may not match the integrity of historical sources, such as local police reports. Also, sophisticated re-routing technologies may instruct users to drive through residential streets to bypass congested areas or use rail lines that are in actuality experiencing service delays. These technologies may create high volume traffic or bottlenecks, and unintended safety and maintenance issues in certain areas.
  • IT integration: Mature data analysis capabilities are foundational to consuming data, developing hypotheses, detecting trends and creating informed policies. This work requires a combination of establishing reporting mechanisms, employing the right tools, and assembling an analysis group who will ask the right questions. Establishing the technology and skilled support staff can be overwhelming to any organization. Transport providers will need to ensure that various technologies and processes are integrated into a coherent system which can be managed by traffic engineers, planners and officials.
  • Privacy and security concerns: Privacy and cyber security is also top of mind for many governments and public agencies tapping into third-party data sources. Users of these applications are essentially allowing these companies, their third-parties partners and agencies, to know their whereabouts at all times. Protection of this data is an important consideration for data-sharing partnerships with government. In fact, public concerns over user anonymity and agencies’ abilities to actively monitor individuals’ movements can cause agencies to be risk averse. Whether an agency is developing an in-house crowd-sourced application, or partnering with a leading developer, proper data and network security helps ensure applications withstand possible cyber-attacks that could negatively impact user experiences, corrupt data, violate user privacy, or do more systemic damage to IT infrastructure.

Learning to travel the two-way street

Transportation agencies acknowledge that they may currently lack the technical knowledge and expertise to best utilize their data. Many are calling for help develop the necessary organizational bodies, procedures, and policies to create and maintain strong and successful partnerships.

By taking a thoughtful approach to understand the potential – and the pitfalls – of crowd-sourced transport data, governments can form effective crowd-sourced partnerships, and apply data-driven insights to enable better infrastructure planning, resource allocation and user experiences.


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