The Challenges to Mobility Data

As on-demand mobility evolves from a concept to a reality that will transport billions of people through and between the megacities of tomorrow, several daunting challenges must be met.

None is more essential than standardizing the data that will drive the complex on-demand system across multiple stakeholders, scores of nations, millions of service providers and billions of end users. This is the declared mission of MobilityData, a non-profit organization that seeks to improve and extend data formats, “making them easier to use through training, documentation, open-source software, online services, and more”.

Tu-Tho Thai, the organization’s director of partnerships and events, said: “There is still a lot of data that is not standardized but the most pressing challenge going forward, now that some data is standardized, is data quality. More and more, we see that public transit authorities or mobility operators do have data in a standardized way that can be shared but the quality is not yet to the point that it is meaningful for the end user.”

That could mean that the data has not been updated or that it has been wrongly coded so that, for example, the app shows the wrong color for a bus, in communities where bus lines are colored differently. “On the app, it shows the color red, and in real life it’s color blue, so it is confusing for the traveler,” she said.

MobilityData facilitates changes to two international mobility data standards, the General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS), the de facto standard for representing transit passenger information, and the General Bike Feed Specification (GBFS), the de facto standard for shared mobility information. The GTFS is used by over 10,000 transit operators around the world to enable them to share their data with trip planners. The GBFS is used in over 40 countries, so shared mobility providers can share their data with trip planning apps.

Anyone in the world can suggest changes to these standards, which could ultimately be adopted. “We first identify or receive suggestions coming from certain stakeholders of the industry,” Thai said. “Then we look at the entire industry itself to see if there is an interest and if there is an interest, we start the modeling part.”

They then go back to industry stakeholders and ask for their input. They may add to the data modeling or disagree and propose another solution. When there is consensus, a vote is taken to facilitate a formal adoption of the proposed spec changes, she said.

MobilityData also offers data providers an open-source tool, called the Validator, which allows them to test the functionality of the data. Thai said that the Validator is also used by companies to check the validity of the data they use for their business. “They use it the same as you would have a quality check on an assembly line before you sell the product to your customer,” she said.

The organization is member-based and includes in its membership some of the largest mobility service providers in the world, such as Apple, Google, Cityway, Here Technologies, Lyft and Moovit to name just a few, as well as public transit operators from around the world, all of whom rely on standardized data to provide flawless real-time data to end users.

“When the data is standardized, it means, for example, that Google, can use the same format to ingest all the different public transit service options around the world without having to translate every single option into something they can use in their own software,” Thai said.

An additional challenge to data use are the differing standards used in different countries. In Europe, regulations define the standards data producers have to follow, Thai said. However, while non-EU countries have regulations for data standardization, they generally do not specify which standard or specification to use. “That can create uncertainty for the market,” she said. “We are working with the European standardization body to provide mapping between our GTFS and GBFS specifications and European standards and we are looking into supporting standardization on a more global scale.”

Thai said the current economic instability may actually be working in favor of data standardization. “There is a current global restructuration in mobility services due to the pandemic and the current financial crisis. If we see a consolidation of market stakeholders and bigger companies emerging, there is a higher chance for everything to become standardized, because for them to scale up and handle their operations everywhere in the world, they will need to rely on a defined set of standards and formats.”

The same occurred in the airline industry some 20 years ago, she noted, when airlines consolidated and IATA drew up standards for the industry. “All airlines are using them now. I think we’re seeing much the same happening to the mobility industry,” Thai said.

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