The transportation system of the future is expected to meet the diverse needs of all citizens using clean technologies and shared services. These services will operate on optimised routes and schedules, in cities designed and regulated to support the efficient and safe movement of people. Around the world, more and more cities are working towards this future by using data to design and enable more-efficient transport systems.
The ministry of housing and urban affair’s (MoHUA’s) DataSmart Cities Strategy, released on February 26, aims to better harness the use of data in addressing complex urban challenges in Smart Cities. For the transportation sector, this new strategy has the potential to play a critical role in launching India into the future of mobility.
The strategy is a forward-thinking, well-structured plan that puts in place both the institutional framework and technological infrastructure to support an increase in data-driven decision-making. The strategy will be overseen by the Smart Cities Mission, and City Data Officers within each Smart City will be responsible for its implementation at the city level.
Data On Wheels
Why is this relevant to transportation? The past few years have seen a rise in the use of data to optimise nearly every sector imaginable, and transportation is no exception. The potential value that mobility data can unlock has led some analysts to dub data “the new form of oil.” Cities have been using data for transport planning for decades—typically in the form of interviews—but the increasing number of large datasets available is unlocking a whole new realm of possibility.
Cities are increasingly using transport data to enhance safety, optimise route and infrastructure planning, inform infrastructure maintenance, improve enforcement and regulation, and manage systems in real time. For example, New York City’s network of video feeds from around the city allows operators to change traffic signals in real time to adapt to changing circumstances and track patterns to improve default signal timing. In Nairobi, the Digital Matatus Project used cell phones to map the informal transit system to provide information to travellers and city planners.
Indian cities are beginning to use data to support their transportation systems. In Bengaluru, for example, the Traffic Improvement Project uses data solutions to improve traffic monitoring and enforcement. The installation of Mysore’s Intelligent Transport System has led to safer travel, lower congestion levels, and greater commuter satisfaction. Recently, Ola offered to provide cities with pothole data to improve road maintenance.
While these initiatives indicate increasing action at the city level, the use of data in the transportation sector in India is currently limited. Yet the need to create more-efficient, optimised transport systems is urgent. The current status of air quality, congestion, and road accidents in many Indian cities necessitates a rapid transition to a new mobility paradigm before these challenges are further exacerbated by a rapidly growing urban population.
New Kind Of Solutions
A number of barriers have constrained the development of data-driven transportation solutions in India. Data collection is fairly limited, existing data is often incomplete and lacks standardisation, and there is little precedent for data-sharing between parties.
The DataSmart Cities Strategy helps address these challenges by providing a framework for improved data collection, sharing, and use. The strategy astutely weaves central-level oversight with city-level leadership, as well as several layers of multicity and multi-stakeholder engagement, to ensure a diverse range of inputs, an improved culture of data collection and sharing, and maximum peer learning across cities.
One key enabler of improved data-sharing in the strategy is its technological infrastructure. In addition to using and strengthening the Government of India’s Open Data Platform, a Data Marketplace layer will be developed to allow for the transaction of data between select parties. This will be essential to providing access to private data by enabling and standardising transactions with private data owners.
Open Data Portals are becoming commonplace, but standardised, centralised data marketplaces are fairly new territory. If the Government of India succeeds in developing and effectively utilising this multipart platform—with each city creating a portal on the centralised platform—it stands to emerge as a global leader in data-sharing best practices.
The strategy could go a step further in encouraging—even mandating—that data transacted on the Marketplace be free of charge to avoid promoting the monetisation of data. If data such as transportation feeds are shared freely, cities are better-positioned to fulfil their mandates to serve the public good. While monetary transactions for data are becoming more common, this trend is problematic because each data producer is then motivated to keep the data until the highest bidder arrives, potentially stunting innovation. The world is at a critical juncture regarding how to treat private data, and governments should do their part to push for as much data as possible to be free and open.
Similarly, the strategy should strive to discourage exclusive data agreements. Private transportation companies should be encouraged—or, ideally, required—to open their APIs, in return for using public infrastructure. Several cities around the world require open APIs as prerequisites for getting business permits, such as Washington, D.C.’s requirement for dockless bike-sharing. If an exclusive data-sharing agreement is absolutely necessary, it should include an expiration date.
The strategy provides a strong overarching framework, but more detail will need to be worked out by experts and stakeholders within various sectors in order to support the nuances of the many diverse sectors that will be impacted. The strategy currently treats “data” as a single category, without noting that sector-specific knowledge will be critical to implementing data solutions in different areas. In the case of transportation data, this gap is somewhat filled by Data-Driven Transportation Systems: A Guide for Smart Cities, a Capacity Building Framework Document recently published by MoHUA.
The DataSmart Cities Strategy represents an exciting step towards addressing the many complex challenges faced by Indian cities, including building an efficient transportation system that meets the diverse needs of millions of citizens. MoHUA has successfully outlined the backbone for a supportive data ecosystem—now it is time to begin the hard work of effectively implementing it.
Akshima Ghate is a Principal at Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) and leads RMI’s India practice. Emily Goldfield is an Associate at Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI). The views expressed are their own.