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SNCF launches a debate on open transport data in France

December 15, 2011 in External, Open Data, WG Open Transport

The following guest post is by Pieter Colpaert from iRail npo and Pierre Chrzanowski, and was reviewed by Regards Citoyens. Pieter and Pierre are both members of our brand new Working Group on Open Transport – watch this space for a full announcement of the working group’s activities and details on how to get involved!”

At first sight, you may think that data.sncf.com is the new open data website of the SNCF, the National Corporation of French Railways. Not yet. The company preferred to launch a consultation website before opening up its data. Anyone can add their thoughts on open transport data on data.sncf.com.

In a country struggling to involve the transport industry in the open data movement, this initiative is most welcome. After the release of data.gouv.fr, we hope transport data will soon be part of the available datasets. The lack till today of open transport data in France led independent initiatives to extract the data without authorisation, placing them in legal insecurity. A change by SNCF is therefore really welcome.

Although SNCF seems to be ready for open data, other public transport operators in France are still reluctant. RATP, the state-owned subway operator for Paris area, recently refused to let other app developers use its map for free. This inspired CheckMyMetro, a startup which was forced to remove the RATP map from its smartphone application, to organize a subway map design contest.

As a lot of organizations are launching similar debates on open data, it is important that they rightfully apply the word “open” and that while doing this they know how to gain an added value for themselves and their customers. Data.scnf.com is a great opportunity to remind the SNCF and other transport actors in Europe of the actual meaning of the word “open” and to help introduce a productive open data policy.

Open data for multimodal transport

Today, commuters use different types of transport to go to work or to travel across Europe. For them, access to timetables, networks maps and real-time transport data is the key to organize their journey or to get informed of disruptions. Multimodal transport is part of the last European Commission transport policy which has announced the launch of a contest for the best European multimodal journey planner. The software behind these intermodal journey planners can be as intelligent as can be, but when there is no data, the software is useless.

Some countries are already doing their part. The UK Government recently committed itself to the release of high-value transport data. Which also seems to provide a good input to answer the data.sncf.com consultation. Here is the comprehensive list of transport data soon to be released:
- Rail timetable information on a weekly basis
- Real-time running data from Network Rail
- Location about Great Britain Rail Network and GB rail network stations
- Traveline National Dataset on a weekly basis (Great Britain buses)
- Next Buses API of planned and real-time information at 350 000 GB bus stops

There are already many journey planner apps offered either by transport companies or developed by independent developer teams, but only a few can help you to organize your journey across the whole EU – deutschebahn offers the closest. Furthermore, with open data, there are new services to come that transport companies did not think about.

Transport innovation through real open data

By starting a debate on open data, data.sncf.com wants to take the first steps towards clearing the path for innovative services. The definition of open data is clear and not debatable. As defined by the Open Knowledge Foundation: “A piece of content or data is open if anyone is free to use, reuse, and redistribute it – subject only, at most, to the requirement to attribute and share-alike”. This means data need to be released for free in an open license and available in open formats. The French statements on open data also give a clear definition of what “open” means. SNCF could then choose to open its datasets either under the new French Open License or among other open licenses available like the ODbL, already in use in different French cities. On open formats, the 5 star-ranking of the W3C is a good reference. But open transport data is part of an industry and a new market. If we want to help developers to develop multimodal apps, the respect of standards is required.

Let’s hope this initiative from the SNCF is the beginning of a real shift towards open transport data in France and beyond.

You can participate to the SNCF debate here

The ePSIplatform is also working on a report on the re-use of transport data in Europe. You can reply to their questionnaire here.

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