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Time lags in innovation

Back in 2015, me and a quickly assembled team were one of three first-round winners of The Open Data Challenge Series . The competition, run by Nesta and The Open Data Institute, challenged teams to use open data to improve access to jobs. We pitched to use the £5000 prize to create a system for measuring the quality of bus routes, with the aim of improving them in the future so that they would connect more people with more jobs.

The idea was pretty simple. We combined open data on where everyone in England & Wales lives with data on where they work. We then combined that with data on where all the buses run.

A simple idea, but actually doing it was difficult — the UK standard for public transport timetable exchange is complicated and there was no good open source code to convert it into something useful. The prize money was what let us write that converter.

At the end of the process we completed lots of forms, created a hugely hopeful business model, and failed to win the £50k prize to continue development of our product. The competition organisers combined the even more hopeful business models that other winners wrote, got PWC to stick it in a blender, and wrote a press release about how much value the series delivered.

What’s happened since?

The last sentence may sound sarcastic, and it is a little bit, but I see the need to estimate return on investment and I can’t suggest a better way of doing it. So really, I think it’s fine.

But here I want to explain how the prize that we won four years ago actually helped to create value, and how that value has been much greater than anything we could have made up in a business model.

Open tools, new techniques, open data, and optimal bus routes

First, we tidied up our TransXChange to GTFS converter, and released it on Github under an open license. There are now five open-source converters , learning from each other and improving. The UK’s public transport is now available in a more useful file format reasonably easily. You may benefit from that on your smartphone app, or online journey planner. And you can access it via APIs like Navitia, powering thousands of projects all around the world. Our tool is now being used by The Office of National Statistics to produce travel time and accessibility maps for Wales, also released under an open license, so that soon it will be used for the whole of Great Britain.

Second, creating our tool let us develop a number of new techniques that have formed parts of much larger projects. Our work on classifying social groups grew into OpenAudience — a tool used in dozens of projects such as Leeds Bins, Luton Bins, and more that we can't talk about publicly. The projects that we know about have generated revenue of over £20k in the past two years, but we know from our usage data that thousands of other people are using that tool.

Third, we continued to improve and update our final tool, imactivate transport. We have used it to push West Yorkshire Metro to release more bus usage data, and to help convince Transport for the North to hold their data strategy consultations in the open with ODILeeds. We used it to prototype a tool for The Department for Transport to reduce the cost of refunding bus operator's BSOG mileage claims.

And biggest of all, we used our experience with bus data to create Real Journey Time, a tool that tracks every bus in The West Midlands and helps to explain part of the UK's productivity puzzle. You can see our write-up on The Productivity Insights Network blog post about Real Journey Time.

 

There's still more to do, we are now ready to do some really exciting stuff. We know where buses go, when they go, and who they could provide journeys for. And we’ve hugely accelerated the code that calculates how good a particular bus route is. We think that we can now explore and compare every possible bus route in a city, and automatically design a system that connects the most people to the most jobs for the least money. If we were trying to raise money to do it, I'd call it an AI for bus routes, but we're not, so I won't.

Four years ago £5000 made a big difference to what we could achieve. But what made a bigger difference was that The Open Data Institute and Nesta were able to run one of their six Open Data Challenge Series events in North England. If that hadn't happened, there is no way that we could have been involved.

Without Metro Mayors in place two years ago, and with the buses bill still a distant dream, there was almost no chance that we would win the main prize two years. But since then a lot has changed and English cities are now free to use the tool that we've created to design bus routes in the open. For people like me who believe that getting people to work is a key part of creating more and better jobs, this a an exciting time.

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