Free Our Data: the blog

A Guardian Technology campaign for free public access to data about the UK and its citizens


Why is the government trying to corner the market for travel-direction sites?

In today’s Guardian we ask why it is that Transport Direct is using lots of data from local and central government (paid for by local and central taxes) to provide a service that has bugs – and is entering the market after a number of private ones.

In Time to tell this travel site where to go, Michael Cross investigates Transport Direct, which has had three million users this calendar year and uniquely offers point-to-point directions.

In an age when it is not seen as appropriate for the public sector to run power stations or railways, why is it running nationalised industries in what should be the most dynamic sector of all, the web-based knowledge economy? The question lies at the heart of our campaign, which argues that government’s role should be to collect and administer high-quality raw data, but make it freely available to everyone to create innovative services.

Transport isn’t the first area where the government has come late into such offerings:

Since its conception nearly a decade ago, “e-government” has been exempt from conventional political wisdom about competition, monopoly and state aid. The consequences are not only theoretical. In 2000, at the height of the dotcom boom, a London startup company called iMPower had the idea of launching a service to sell fishing licences on the web. It was supposed to usher in a new age of “intermediaries” providing electronic routes to public services. In theory, this was supported by government policy – but another government policy required the Environment Agency to launch its own fishing licence service on the web. The private-sector offering was unable to compete.

[Transport Direct's chief executive Nick] Ilsley says that research by the department before Transport Direct’s launch showed the private sector wasn’t interested in providing a one-stop all-purpose site. However the site was launched in a market already populated by the private sector, albeit with less sophisticated offerings. Their operators argue that these are more in tune with public needs.

Our question: why not just make the feeds available for anyone to make use of, and build sites which could compete with each other, which would benefit taxpayers by generating revenues, rather than costing them for a function that sits on top of essential government?

9 Responses to “Why is the government trying to corner the market for travel-direction sites?”

  1. Richard Fairhurst Says:

    Brilliant, sort of.

    You are absolutely 100% correct that the TransportDirect data should be freed. If the “high-quality raw data” were available to all-comers, then it would be available for innovative services to use – such as Google Transit, http://www.google.com/transit .

    However, the “Government should not be in this market” argument is misguided and something I am very surprised to read in the Guardian, of all papers.

    Getting more people onto public transport, and out of their cars, is a social good – and the first step to this is making it possible for people to understand the labyrinthine intricacies of train and bus timetables and fares. It is absolutely the sort of thing the Government should be doing, regardless of whether the private sector does it or not.

    Where transportdirect.info gets it wrong is that it’s a typical old-school Government IT project. Civil servants who don’t really understand how the web works issue an idealised specification: private sector firm (in this case, Atos Origin) comes up with winning, but still pretty costly, tender: spec is implemented to the letter, if not to the spirit: website disappoints: round after round of costly Change Requests attempt to turn the sow’s ear into a silk purse. Been there, done that, got the T-shirt.

    But there is absolutely no reason why public sector IT projects have to be like this. We had the above experience at Waterscape.com, British Waterways’ consumer website, where a multi-million pound website built by Netdecisions/Agilisys to BW’s lengthy specs was, to all intents and purposes, unusable. Customers were furious (see newsgroup uk.rec.waterways passim) and BW was getting constant flak.

    We (myself as editor, and Paul Morgan as webmaster) persuaded BW that, by using open source software, in-house development, generic hosting, and a non-contract-based methodology (we chose Extreme Programming), we could build a much better site for a fraction of the cost. And we did: the result’s there for all to see. It has whizzy interactive mapping, dynamic downloadable guides for boaters, e-mail stoppage alerts… a whole host of stuff that wasn’t provided by the original site, and all for less than 10% of the setup costs, and 10% of the monthly hosting bill.

    So, by all means, point out that the TransportDirect data should be free. But don’t use it as a conservative argument for “the state shouldn’t be in this business?. Rather, it’s an example of how the state should be doing it – but doing it better.

    (Incidentally, is “it is not appropriate for the public sector to run railways? now official Guardian policy? The rest of Europe seems to manage, much better than we do.)

    Richard Fairhurst

  2. Charles Arthur Says:

    Richard, thanks for your very helpful comment. (I’ve edited it to make it one; the reason your others got truncated was because the “less than” symbol makes the machine think you’re going to enter a web link… and then it’s disappointed you don’t.)

    It’s not “Guardian policy” about private/public control of railways. The point is that that’s how the leading political parties are representing it:
    In an age when it is not seen as appropriate for the public sector to run power stations or railways, why is it running nationalised industries in what should be the most dynamic sector of all, the web-based knowledge economy?

    We don’t make the policy, we just point out the contradictions.

  3. Dave Says:

    This article is based on naivety and ignorance, and does not help by quoting ‘experts’ whose own systems are incredibly limited and hardly help the travelling public at all.

    The facts are more complicated. The ‘market’ is not interested in providing a comprehensive supply of public transport information, because it costs a lot of money to provide and has only limited commercial value. Local authorities do not have the money to maintain their own data accurately. And if commercial operators think it has a value, they want to charge for it. Transport Direct in concept was intended to cut through all of this, creating a national data bank for public transport. This could then be made available to other organisations for other services. However, it has had major problems in the cost of keeping data maintained.

    The data problem is exarcebated by the technology – and cuts to the heart of why public sector IT projects fail. In the selection phase for Transport Direct, a technology was chosen by a junior civil servant that was unproven, based on a limited research project. The technology has never worked fully, and was chosen against competition of a more proven system. The service could never be fully marketed because of the combined unrealiability of technology and data.

    Journeyplan and Xephos are cheap services which could never achieve what Transport Direct set out to achieve. It set out to achieve a genuine first for the country, and should not be disparaged for that. Sadly, it probably now won’t, but not for anything to do with that suggested by this article.

  4. Michael Cross Says:

    Thanks for that insight, Dave, I was aware of some of the debate about the unreliability of the technology but, as you observe, I am not an expert. Feel free to enlighten us here.

    On the question of whether the private sector would develop Transport Direct, I think Nick Illsley (three Ls, incidentally), who was very helpful to me when we spoke on Tuesday, made a fair point when he said that research had shown the private sector reluctant to do so. However that research seems to be at least six years old. One certainty is that with large sums of taxpayers’ money pouring into Transport Direct, you’d be foolhardy to launch a start-up competitor today.

    Guardian policy on nationalisation? Search me. I do know, however, that it’s not Guardian policy to dictate editorial policy to its contributors.

  5. Richard Fairhurst Says:

    Sorry, the Guardian policy comment was a light-hearted jibe on my part – maybe I should have smileyed it. But it did strike me as a little incongruous to accept railway privatisation quite so readily, particularly in line of Chris Alden’s excellent article today contrasting the (nationalised) German railways so favourably with the (private sector) UK ones.

  6. Michael Cross Says:

    Yes I’d agree with Chris. And don’t get me started on the water industry…
    Thanks again for your comments.

    m

  7. Nick Illsley Says:

    Chaps

    Just two point of clarity, first my background is in the transport industry and prior to this position I ran National Rail Enquiries, the biggest information service in Europe. My team is made up of a mixture of civil servants, secondees from the transport industry and high level IT and project management experts. We were also advised by people of the calibre of Sir Malcolm Field (former Chief Executive of WH Smith) and Professor Glenn Lyons, one of the UK’s foremost experts in researching into how people make travel decisions and what may affect their choice.

    Secondly with regard to the availability of data and services, one of your previous articles covered the work done by My Society on Isochrones, guess whose system they used to derive this data? Without an information spine such as Transport Direct exactly the type of service that you champion would not be feasible or affordable!

  8. Michael Cross Says:

    Many thanks, Nick (and apologies for the erratic spelling of your surname; the Guardian is getting better at this, I promise).

    I think we all agree that the government should have some role in the collection and publication of transport data. The question is more about the appropriate level of value-add.

    As Richard says, “social good” needs to be taken into the equation. I believe one of the original outcomes sought from Transport Direct was to encourage more use of public transport? That might well be worth paying for – the snag in practice is that the car option nearly always comes out as best, but no doubt that reflects the state of our buses and trains rather than the website.

  9. Michael Cross Says:

    The Guardian’s Response column today publishes a robust defence of Transport Direct from the transport minister, Stephen Ladyman.

    It’s at [url]www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,,1844553,00.html[/url]

Leave a Reply