Open data unlocks a burst of innovation

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Switzerland’s public transport services are among the best in Europe. To make sure that it stays like that, the Swiss Federal Railways (SBB) has launched a massive infrastructure expansion programme, which will run until 2040. As well as infrastructure-specific challenges, the SBB has to contend with ever-changing customer needs. Today’s travellers want more than a simple ride from A to B. So, how does the SBB plan to keep up to speed with this fast-moving environment?

By getting on board the digital train, according to Rahel Ryf, head of the SBB’s Public Transport Open Data Unit and a firm believer in the transformative power of digitalisation: “In terms of infrastructure, strong foundations for the future are already in place, and these are maintained and expanded on a continual basis. In terms of our digital services, we’re focusing our efforts on harmonising these as best we possibly can.” Such a move will allow the SBB not only to densify its services but also to knit public and private transport more closely together.

“Not invented here” – a thing of the past

Likewise, the Federal Office of Transport (FOT) is keenly aware that innovative digital solutions are needed for public and combined transport. This is why the FOT commissioned SBB Infrastructure with providing the requisite data and infrastructure. Correspondingly, it tasked the SBB Infrastructure Division with delivering the necessary data and infrastructure. The latter launched an open call for tenders, plumping for Liip once again.

The ‘Public Transport Switzerland open data platform’ currently holds around six gigabytes of machine-readable data, a ‘recipe book’ with examples and instructions, as well as a community management area where users can share ideas and provide one another with support. The platform is aimed at a wide range of stakeholders: the federal authorities, rail operators, the Swiss public transport system as a whole, and data users in companies and start-ups, as well as the entire open data community.

The platform also serves as a springboard for a host of innovations. There is Time for Coffee, an app that displays a list of imminent departures from your nearest station. Or TrainDelayBot, a chat bot which keeps you posted on the latest delays as soon as you set foot in the station. And, not forgetting the Viadi Touch Timetable, an app that uses freely available data to let you organise your travel schedule in just one swipe. The fact that it is now part of the official SBB app is proof that the federal rail service provider knows how to leverage community potential, shunting the “Not invented here” attitude to the sidings, for good.

Open source for open data

The SBB and Liip have opted for proven open source technologies and solutions to power opentransportdata.swiss: CKAN to manage the data catalogue, WordPress to manage content and Discourse to manage the community. Also, the platform is able to provide data in real time thanks to GTFS-RT.

Another innovative move was the use of the API-management platform Tyk. This allowed the project team to make interfaces to peripheral systems publicly available in an efficient, secure and controlled way. As a result, the SBB is able to define clear, controllable conditions and benefit from new business ideas. In the end, open data generates much more than just costs.

The huge potential of the opentransportdata.swiss platform was also recognised by the Best of Swiss Web Awards 2017 jury. The project took bronze in the Public Affairs category.

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