Train data: how do we share its benefits? By Todd Rayner
The Department for Transport (the DfT) published its ‘Joint Rail Data Action Plan’ in August 2018 setting out a number of objectives and associated timescales, which an industry-led taskforce will work towards in order to improve the quality and openness of rail data. The plan focuses on train operating companies (TOCs) and other rail entities addressing the following five barriers to wider data sharing.
1. Data Transparency
The Data Action Plan refers to a “general caution” exercised by TOCs in identifying data that is commercially sensitive, which in turn has led to the incorrect classification of datasets that, it is suggested, would “improve efficiencies across the railway” i.e. “missed opportunities” to use data for the benefit of customers.
The DfT proposes to navigate this dilemma by establishing clear guidelines on the types of data that are commercially sensitive. By introducing a Rail Information Governance Framework, the DfT proposed to create a transparent process of classifying the sensitivity of data and aimed to develop an “industry agreed definition”. The ‘Passenger Rail Usage Quality Report’ published by the Office of Rail and Road (the ORR) stated in October 2018 that passenger rail usage data, particularly revenue data, is viewed as commercially sensitive. However, an industry agreed definition is yet to be proposed. The issue was further discussed in the ‘Rail Sector Deal’ published by the Department for Transport in December 2018 which stated that the industry will draw on ongoing work to better define datasets that are commercially sensitive.
2. Data Use and Access
Another barrier highlighted by the DfT is the limited clarity over ownership of data. This can be exacerbated by commercial relationships because, for example, third party suppliers may sometimes reserve the right to access and share the data harvested with third parties. Therefore, it may sometimes be the case that data is not the TOC’s to share.
The Data Action Plan suggests that the DfT will set out a co-ordinated approach towards greater data sharing generally within the industry, with the goal being that this will “reduce the need for third party contracts to access data that could already be available”. This was further discussed in the ‘Rail Sector Deal’ which states that the rail sector has made, and must continue to make, significant strides forward with regards to data sharing.
The DfT is exploring the role that franchise agreements could play in enabling greater data sharing, while the ORR will be charged with creating a central list of rail datasets and their owners. Additionally, the DfT is developing a data sharing policy for the industry, which would potentially remove licensing restrictions, preventing entities from charging thirdparties for their data.
There is a parallel here with the UK bus industry, where bus companies are now required under the Bus Services Act 2017 to publish more data (and of greater quality) about their services (e.g. punctuality and performance statistics). The DfT has predicted that a greater availability of open data will result in an increase in bus passenger numbers.
3. Data Quality and Standards
The DfT draws attention to the fact that we do not have a full picture of what datasets exist, let alone have a full understanding of their true value. The Data ActionPlan also briefly highlights the lack of conformity in the industry when it comes to data publishing standards. It references variations in software and inconsistencies in coding for railway stations as barriers to new entrants. The taskforce aims to combat this by developing a common standard for data and metadata. The Data Action Plan stated that the taskforce aims to create a method of defining metadata by October 2019 and develop a common data model and architecture for the UK railway by April 2020.
4. Data Value and Principles
The Data Action Plan infers that the value of data is often underestimated, where in actuality it promotes innovation and expansion. For example, future funding is not being provided because of the costs associated with data sharing. To combat this issue, the Data Action Plan proposes that each rail organisation appoints an “open data champion” who raises awareness of the benefits of open data from within a company.
5. Rail Culture and Information / Data Skills
The Data Action Plan notes that the appetite for openness and information exploitation is limited in the rail sector. It asks for greater collaboration with “innovators”, such as tech start-ups and tech partnerships like the National Skills Academy for Rail, and introduces the idea of a Rail Data Challenge which invites innovators to solve these current data barriers in the rail industry.
What does this mean for the passenger and the wider industry?
The Data Action Plan’s tagline is “addressing barriers to make better use of rail data”, with the intended beneficiaries being the passengers, and the intended consequences being greater accessibility, efficiency and reliability.
For example, the DfT hopes to make data regarding fares and the “lowest-cost-route” available to technology providers to allow travel planning apps and ticketing sites to offer lower priced tickets – thereby driving competition. This was further expressed in the ‘Rail Sector Deal’ which stated that the Rail Delivery Group and Network Rail have continued to make more rail data available to third parties through their self-sign-up portals. This means that there are now more opportunities for third parties to enter the market and develop new fares, ticketing services and products for passengers.
Similarly, there is a “rich and comprehensive” – but undisclosed – data source that underpins the ORR’s aggregated figures on the Origin-Destination Matrix. The release of this underlying data would give passengers an indication of station/route utilisation and would allow outside businesses the opportunity to judge the commercial viability of setting up a concession in or near a station.
Todd Rayner is Solicitor in Transport at Womble Bond Dickinson (WBD). WBD is a transatlantic law firm with more than 1000 lawyers based in 26 UK and US office locations. The firm’s reach also extends to Europe where it has strategic partnerships with other law firms in Germany and France. Besides, through the firm’s association with Lex Mundi, the world’s largest association of independent law firms, Womble Bond Dickinson also can offer clients access to quality-tested local counsel in more than 120 countries.