Julia Kloiber on Open Data

[Video] Julia Kloiber on apps, open transport data, and why it matters

When I was at the Open Knowledge Festival in Helsinki, in between lectures, hackathons and workshops I managed to catch up with Julia Kloiber from the Open Knowledge Foundation. Julia is co-curating the Open Data track at the Summit of newthinking with Lorenz Matzat, and we talked a little about her work, open data, and (a bit of a theme for me in the last week or two) open transport data.
If you’ve got an idea for a presentation or workshop at the summit of newthinking, get in quick! the open call is only on for 2 more days!

Anyone interested to see what’s been happening with open transport in the USA should check out this video:

And for any of my fellow Berliners waiting for open data from the VBB or Deutsche Bahn, you can keep an eye on happenings with OpenVBB.


How Public is Your Transport?

This post originally appeared on my blog at Shareable.net

At the Open Knowledge festival I learned about citizens' struggles to obtain Open Transport Data for their cities. (Image CC-BY LHoon)

At the Open Knowledge festival I learned about citizens’ struggles to obtain Open Transport Data for their cities. (Image CC-BY LHoon)


Last week I was lucky enough to be at the Open Knowledge Festival in Helsinki – 4 incredible days of workshops, talks and hackathons bringing together some of the best ideas and brightest minds in the fields of open government, science, education, hardware and data. Trying to live as ‘open source’ as possible does present plenty of challenges when travelling.

What to do about open source accommodation? We stayed with kind and generous locals via free hospitality exchange: BeWelcome is the open source option, non-profit, democratic and transparent– Couchsurfing is none of these, but it has the biggest user share.

With two of our hosts in Helsinki!

With two of our hosts in Helsinki!

Hospitality exchange is the best way to get an insight into the local culture (and learn about the Moomins). Want to know why there are slot machines in all Finnish supermarkets? Or what blueberry soup tastes like? Want to see a Chernobyl simulator inside the Helsinki Hacklab? Then go to Finland, and stay with a local!

One of the control panels from Helsinki Hacklabs' Chernobyl Simulator (Image CC-BY Hannu Makarainen)

One of the control panels from Helsinki Hacklabs’ Chernobyl Simulator (Image CC-BY Hannu Makarainen)

I knew transport would be a difficult problem to solve. Up until now I’ve just been riding my old-style 1-speed patent-free bicycle to get around Berlin, but leaving the city meant I had to look elsewhere. Openness in transport can be at various different levels – you could drive an open source car, fly an open source plane, you could share a vehicle, or simply share a ride. My attempts to find the ‘shariest’ option to get to Helsinki from Berlin proved to be somewhat of a failure, only managing to ride-share one leg of the journey. But as it turned out, the festival itself was the ideal place to find out more about the possibilities for the future.

One recurring theme at this conference was open data. Information collected by governments, NGOs and companies, released openly in machine readable formats. Open data presents an opportunity to compare statistics, to make graphs, apps and maps which allow us to better understand the world and see what needs improvement, to base our understanding on facts rather than impressions. Transport companies, the heart of a city’s circulatory system, hold extremely important data on how the city works, in terms of passenger volume, timetables, delays, access to neighbourhoods and energy use. The festival included 3 days of fascinating discussions and presentations on the developments and challenges of Open Transport.

Helsinki even offers a great visualisation for the efficiency of bike parking.

Helsinki even offers a great visualisation for the efficiency of bike parking.

Helsinki was the ideal place for such a discussion – for a country with an astonishingly incomprehensible language, the Finns do have a very clear public transport system, and it’s a great example of open data in action. Helsinki Regional Transport’s timetable and realtime information is shared openly for anyone to build upon. You can mix this data with anything else you like – air pollution or noise levels – crime or economic activity, rent prices – and you start to have a clearer understanding of a city.

A great advantage of opening up data as a company is that 3rd party apps can improve customer experience with your product. There are now apps which tell you exactly where every tram in Helsinki is right now. In fact it’s got a little ridiculous – Helsinki has only one metro line, but you have the choice of 35 mobile apps giving updates, mashups and realtime information to help you navigate it. Good data can allow you to check-in using location-based services on a moving vehicle, not with GPS but with interpolation of timetable information. You could link transport data with special calendar events or weather, and work out when demand is likely to be high. Info on delays or heavy use of transport could be relayed to other users.

Some of the apps presented during the Open Transport Helsinki talk.

Some of the apps presented during the Open Transport Helsinki talk.

It’s not just Finland – in Sweden the government now requires all transport companies to open their data through a central agency. One man’s polite, patient but persistent inquiries built a British rail database, and now the government is trying open transport data itself. The United States has a comprehensive Open Transport Data plan, and iRail.be is working on making sense of every train connection in Belgium, the Netherlands and part of France.

This isn’t a universal movement yet – I live in Germany, where organisations love the idea of modernity, but can’t quite bring themselves to follow through. The raging desire to be high-tech suddenly gets all soft and pulpy when faced with abandoning the pure certainty of print on paper- this is a country where you can fill in your whole tax form online, before you print and send it by post. My online banking service requires a printed paper code to run. For most companies, an ‘Online-Portal’ means a personalised login, to request which account details you would like to see – they can be mailed to your door early next week. So no surprise there’s a lack of imagination in official channels when it comes to open data.

Open data on Berlin's transport website- No results found.

Open data on Berlin’s transport website- No results found.

Deutsche Bahn has hardly begun the slow, iron crank into the 21st century, and Berlin’s 90 miles of underground trains are served by a single basic, officially sanctioned app. No offline version for tourists or others who aren’t connected. No extra mobility information for wheelchair access times; no easy analysis of infrastructure for city planners; no calculation of energy consumption or carbon footprints. No opportunity for integration with OpenStreetMap or OpenTripPlanner. And most importantly, no compromise shown to campaigners trying to prise this data from the city transport agency’s rusty old vaults.

Some frustrated open data activists have started to give dark and dusty German institutions a push into the light, whether they like it or not. A couple of weeks ago Michael Kreil and others finished what I can imagine was 3 weeks of intense copy-pasting, working to scrape what useful data they could from publically available Deutsche Bahn PDFs and the Berlin transport timetables, publishing a clean dataset for others to build on. The hope is that others will use this data to build visualisations, reports and online applications and show these creaky old companies how valuable opening their data could be.

Just to get you started, here’s a mesmerising 30-second look at Berlin’s public transport network – green dots are overground trains, blue are underground, red are trams and purple are buses.

So far the publicity the move has generated seems to be having an effect. Berlin’s transport data may be officially opened by the end of the year. Nationally it might take longer. Deutsche Bahn first responded to the move with a gruff “bah, humbug. We have one of those app things already.” Then the taxpayer-funded corporation last week finally released its data, but not to the public – they signed an exclusive deal with Google.

To round out the festival, in a packed keynote address, Hans Rosling encouraged people to ‘demand open data‘ to increase understanding of the world they live in – but when demanding doesn’t work, grabbing, scraping, and collecting data seems the best alternative. Open data, with, or without permission.

How open is transport data in your region?
Shareable’s content is licensed as Attribution-Sharealike-NonCommercial, so incompatible with free licenses. Therefore this post is also Attribution-Sharealike-NonCommercial rather than my usual Attribution-Sharealike.

I’m in Helsinki… help me get home?

I’m in Helsinki for the Open Knowledge Festival, 4 days covering an incredible selection of 13 different ‘Open’ themes, from government to education to hardware and business, where I’ll be meeting and learning from people involved in some of the most forward thinking developments, hacks and projects from all over the world. I’m filming interviews and I’ll be writing a few posts too, so watch this space!

One of the situations which I knew was going to be a problem over this year was transport – and travelling to Finland presents a particularly difficult target.

To get to Helsinki from Berlin, you can either

A. fly direct

B. fly to Tallinn, Estonia, and catch a ferry

C. drive/train 6 hours to Rostock, north Germany and catch the ferry, (2 days) to Helsinki.

D. drive/train 2 days through Poland, a Russian enclave, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Russia again, and finally Finland. Drive fast and drink lots of coffee, you could be there in 25 hours. Or, more likely, you could be in a smouldering wreckage somewhere in Latvia.

According to my way of thinking, the best way to travel in an ‘open source’ manner right now is through a ride-sharing website. In Germany the popular site is the beautifully named mitfahrgelegenheit.de (with-drive-opportunity.de) where anyone can post their planned journey, state how many seats are available in the car, how much people have to pay to ride along, and leave a phone number for others to call. Regardless of whether the actual software on the website is open source or not, the system facilitates peer-to-peer interaction and efficient sharing. The driver gets a little cash to pay for petrol, and the passengers get a cheap direct trip without having to change trains or anything complicated. It’s also possible to use ride-sharing websites to organise sharing a group ticket (up to 5 people) on a train.

Ride-sharing works extremely well within Germany, and you can also get over the border sometimes, but the problem with travelling to Helsinki is that to cross so many countries, I’d have to get extremely lucky with tidy changeovers between rides in each country, i.e. arrive in Poznan, Poland at 4pm, and have already organised a ride on a Polish website going from Poznan to Kaliningrad, Russia at 5pm. A more likely situation would be arriving somewhere in the afternoon, staying overnight and continuing the next morning. Meaning a trip all around the Baltic sea could take up to a week.

I’m still doing some paid video jobs to pay the rent where they fit in well with my project (like this) so this means I do have commitments back in Berlin and I don’t have a week free to ride-share my way across the continent. I spent hours researching possible connections or the likelihood of ‘boat-ride-sharing’ or anything like that, put out the call for people keen to share a group train ticket, and met all sorts of dead-ends with ride-sharing. So the choice for me was either a) don’t go to the Open Knowledge Festival or b) take a flight.

I decided for the festival, and in the end my journey to Helsinki involved a 4-hour ride-share from Berlin to Bremen (€20), a 3-hour flight to Tallinn, Estonia (€26) and a 1.5 hr ferry from Tallinn to Helsinki (€27).

Our ride-share to Bremen in a smooth, spacious 9-seater van. Easy!

But now I’m in the best possible place to find out where open source travel is right now, and where it’s going. It’s the start of 4 days worth of incredible presentations, workshops and events covering exactly the issues I’m trying to cover with this project, and I’ve just come out of a presentation on Open Transport, brimming with ideas. Updates coming soon!

In the meantime, if anybody can suggest a way to get back from Helsinki to Berlin via more open, sharing methods, I’m all ears!

There’s always the option to pedal back on one of these

Check out this visualisation of ride-sharing via Mitfahrgelegenheit over 5 days:

Ridesharing Network Visualization from Ubilabs on Vimeo.


On a general project-running note, I’ve been struggling a bit to get videos cut and online quickly, and provide regular blog posts, although most of the issues with learning new software is mostly behind me, so hopefully some of the back log of unedited stories will be appearing shortly! Judith is now taking on a bit more of a project manager role to help me schedule better and ensure that I’m communicating, blogging and tweeting (@YrOfOpenSource) so that you know what’s going on, and hopefully so that you can help me solve problems when they come up as well.