Improving the public transport system
Many praise big data as the panacea for more efficiency, security, transparency and improving communities in large cities. To date this universal remedy has been rather abstract. The applications developed by Berlin start-up Ally demonstrate the concrete advantages of big data for citizens. Read More
There are lots of open questions about big data, such as how the masses of data are actually generated, what they can be used to accomplish and who benefits from a city's huge data volume and flow. Berlin start-up Ally has developed an app for commuters that uses big data. It collects, interprets and visualises data for all the current possible modes of transport in a city. This presents huge challenges, especially in cities in which the data available are confusing and incomplete. Now Ally is getting ready to use its technology with civilian drones in major cities as well. We talked to Ally founder Maxim Nohroudi about these plans.
Maxim, what is the difference between your commuter app and the Google maps route planner?
Conditions on the ground are the difference. There are so many different modes of transport. Google maps operates at a more general overall level. We include options like car sharing, bike sharing, and unofficial shared taxis in developing countries. Another key factor is the almost complete lack of a data pool for different transport options in emerging and developing nations. This is where we come in. Sourcing and interpreting data number among our most important activities. What you see on the Ally app is just the tip of the iceberg.
If you help us gather the data, we'll be happy to use our app to help you make your public transport system more efficient.
How do you generate this data?
We experimented with our system in cities like Berlin, London and Paris where a lot of official data is already available. You can access it with a bit of effort. Now we are working with cities in which there is practically no public transport data available at all. We are activating local communities to generate visible data. It was amazing to discover how many locally active groups there are. Open Street Map, a map anyone can add data to or draw data from, is very helpful. We have sat down with local governments, NGOs, local activists and told them 'we have this technology that could help clarify the kinds of vehicles that drive around here. If you help us gather the data, we'll be happy to use our app to help you make your public transport system more efficient.
How can you help increase the efficiency of public transport?
By taking a very close look at supply and demand. Take a city like London: Sometimes the giant, red buses drive around empty, at other times they are overflowing. Our long-term goal is to ensure public transport functions at ideal, maximum capacity. We want to transform it from a supply-based to a demand-based system.
“Supply- and demand-based” in public transport? How would that work?
The music industry is one possible example. In the past, you had to go into a store to buy a CD. Your ability to buy a CD depended on store opening hours and what was in stock. Purely supply based. Today with Spotify and Apple we have 24/7 access to a complete music library – this is a demand-based approach. Our goal is to apply this principle to transportation. To date public transport systems have been very static. The same routes, the same schedules, the same bus stops. It's quite literally “their way or the highway” if you want to get from point A to point B. We are working on assessing actual demand for each mode of transport by taking snapshots, then using them to derive more comprehensive information. In London we were able to identify when a double-decker bus was not needed on a particular route at a particular time, since only eight people were waiting for transport and would fit nicely into a minibus. Our calculations are based on collected data and the data app users continually transmit to us. Ultimately swarm intelligence is helping improve public transport systems.
We want to transform public transport from a supply-based to a demand-based system.
In other words, you offer your conclusions about public transport systems to local governments as a service.
That's right. It is about using less space. More and more people are moving to the cities, but the physical space remains the same. Sooner or later cities will start reducing the number and type of cars allowed to drive into the city. As a result, public transport will have to get increasing numbers of people where they want to go more efficiently. City governments understand that there are some elements of public transport, like shared taxis, they have no access to, though these comprise up to 90 percent of public transport in some cases. They need a comprehensive understanding of the vehicles moving around their city and how many people could theoretically use a particular mode of transport if local governments are to bet a better handle on transport. Right now we are very active in Mexico City, Santiago de Chile, Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo, Bogota, and Buenos Aires. Together with the World Bank and the UN, we have also worked with the first African city, Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. In just two-and-a-half weeks, we succeeded in rendering public transport in Dar es Salaam completely visible.
I imagine there is quite a difference between working with a city in an industrialized country compared to cities in emerging and developing countries where a lot of people don't have access to a smart phone.
True, the concentration of smartphones in developed countries is much higher. Plus mobile phone data volume in emerging and developing nations is not as high. Almost no one has 3G. This is important to keep in mind if your goal is to have people transmit data via their phones. One solution here is to work with a mobile phone company so Ally app users don't have to access their data package for the app. This might sound utterly absurd to people who always have access to the complete net at all times. It makes a huge different in Mexico City though. People start using the app immediately when they discover it won't eat up their data.
Have you also noticed a difference in how the app is accepted and used?
Absolutely. Public transport has pretty much remained the same for the past 100 years. This decade will be the one in which structural changes are made. And I think that new, innovative public transport products will not come from developed countries where billions have already been invested in the existing systems that also need to be serviced and maintained. Pressure to act is not as high. If you look at a city that is close to complete collapse because of rising urbanisation though, local administrations are much more willing to experiment. Citizens are also more open to trying out and accepting new solutions. I feel certain that we will see a lot of new systems in emerging markets over the next 10-20 years that the industrialised countries will slowly begin to adopt as well.
Your newest idea is to start using your technology for the use of civilian drones in large cities. What is the plan here?
The idea was inspired by our meetings with large retailers. Our concept is to allow package delivery drones to briefly land on buses and take advantage of their speed for a while. When the bus turns in a different direction, the drone simply takes off again and hops onto the next bus. Our interactive maps tell us which bus is taking which route and when, so we could provide the drone with exact information about which bus to land on. We could calculate the optimal route for the drone.
Bus-hopping for drones. Why would that be faster then if the drone flew directly to its destination?
Not faster, but more efficient. Drones have limited battery capacity and as such limited range. Transporting the battery itself is a power-drain as well. If a drone has less battery weight to transport, it can fly further and transport more payload. It would also be a way to limit air traffic. The drone would automatically land on buses in motion. Our data would help us calculate the landing precisely. This is the basic concept. It will take us a while to work it out. A lot of questions have to be answered: legal issues, insurance questions, how to prevent packages from being stolen. And people ride on the roofs of buses in many countries, so that is an issue too. There are a lot of challenges awaiting us.