Open data: A good thing

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James Bain, Rail Supply Group’s ‘Mobility and Data’ Champion and CEO of Worldline UK and Ireland, considers the benefits of open data to an industry that hasn’t always been open to new ideas.

James Bain, Rail Supply Group.

It looks like there is light at the end of the COVID tunnel at last, but there is still a long line to run before we get back to anywhere near normal, whatever normal means in these strange times. 

The Rail Supply Group (RSG) is doing its bit to help industry get there, with our COVID-19 taskforce, established in 2020 at the request of the government, prioritising, among other things, simplification of data access.

 As the RSG lead on mobility and data, I don’t need much persuading on the value of open data to the rail industry, and I don’t have any illusions about the challenges that it presents in a sector that has not always – to put it politely – been eager to share.

The work we have done with leading compliance expert Cordery offers plenty of reasons to be cheerful, however. Cordery has brought a degree of independence to the table that has perhaps been lacking before and, after a detailed consultation process, developed a data model that has been received with a surprising degree of positive consensus. Surprising, that is, for an industry where – as one interviewee put it – we may have powerful data but we have tended only to use it to sue each other.

The Cordery model follows feedback from 23 semi-formal interviews, a review of links, documents and other information sources supplied by Rail Data Council members and interviewees, a review of new sector developments, gap analysis of existing contracts and privacy policies, and a series of less formal soundings with a wide range of stakeholders. The result is a simplified four-level data structure that can form the basis of an effective data-sharing platform with minimal access limitations, a platform which could be implemented speedily and effectively with relatively minor legislative and working-practice changes.

The proposed data levels range from level one – which is complete open access including ticketing data, information on delays, footfall from trains, on board facilities etc – to level four, where access will be limited by contractual agreement and legal necessity, such as passenger geo-location taken from mobile phones, for example. But all of the data will be available in a single space, a ‘walled garden’ or shop window as one of the interviewees put it.

Of course, there are questions still to be answered on the legal requirements to provide data, the importance placed on open data in future procurement and the updating of legacy data formats among many others, but the framework we have developed is a big step forwards and places us in an excellent position to move rail forward to match and even surpass other sectors such as air travel, in terms of the offer we can make to our customers and clients.

Covid-19 has been a bitter blow, but we can ‘Build Back Better’. One of the lessons of the extraordinary achievement of the bioscience sector over the last year in developing so many new vaccines in such a short time, is that openness in information works for everyone. It will work for rail too, and we are ready to lead the way.

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