Thursday, 4 July 2013

Apps & the City: The Changing Face of Urban Travel

Whilst on a recent business trip, it occurred to me that I would be lost without my smartphone. This is by no means the first time I have thought appreciatively of my phone but this experience stood out in my mind. I was typically late and rushing to make a flight. First I used my smartphone to check my route to the airport using a tube map of my native London, then whilst on the train I double-checked the airport website to confirm the correct terminal for my flight before boarding said flight using a mobile boarding pass. Upon touching down in my destination, I traveled across the city to a train connection, found a place to eat lunch to answered some urgent emails. I was able to do all of the above on my smartphone while listening to a podcast and passing my train journey with a mobile game.

Of course all of the above services would have been possible in the days before my smartphone through finding public information points but this is a time-consuming process, particularly in a foreign city. The smartphone offers me a window onto the world which allows me to behave pretty much as a native of any foreign city. This, for me at least, is a pretty big thrill as I seamlessly navigate the transport system, enjoy some delicious food and make purchases just like a long-term resident.

Hot on the heels of my love affair with my smartphone though I was struck with a second thought every bit as powerful as the first: None of my fancy applications would matter without the information to make them run. For example if my train from the airport to the city centre had a timetable which I could only find using a station board, I could not have used my app to book my ticket and arrive perfectly on time for the train. Similarly without the city making its information about tourist sights available somewhere the designers of my ‘see the sights’ app would have nothing to go on and I would have missed some very beautiful buildings along my route.

The information cities hold is commonly referred to as Data. Data is generated by governments and public services as they go about their everyday duties. For example, a train company operating its regular schedule generates vast amounts of data about train times, delays, routes and even passenger numbers and peak times. In our technology-driven world, it has become easier than ever to capture and store this data is vast quantities. This is true for almost every service you can think of in a city, from the lighting of streets to the running of public parks.

The main question for our times is what governments do with the huge mountains of Data they have stored in their archives? In the past, the answer was one of two things, either 1) they did nothing with it but study it or 2) they let large companies pay for the privilege of using that Data to build new services or products. The problem with this model is clear to see: Only a company willing to pay a large amount of money could afford to use the data governments collected. However, this is only the start of the problem. Governments generate mountains of Data while running public services. Public services are paid for by citizen’s taxes either at the City, Regional or National level. Therefore, the Data which public services generate belongs to the people who made it possible in the first place: the Citizens. The above describes a movement which has been gathering pace in Europe for the last 20 years: Open Data. Open Data suggests that governments should open their data up for people to use free of charge (because they own it!). This would mean that anyone, from the largest company to the smallest individual could put data to work in thousands of different ways, limited only by their own creativity and innovation. Naturally some of these creative people might be the designers of the mobile apps which allow me to navigate a foreign city like a professional. All the time I save and the extra experiences I get from these apps begin and end with Open Data.

This is where Citadel on the Move comes into the picture. Citadel is a European Commission-Funded project which begins with a simple equation: Open Data + Mobile = Innovation. The two ingredients needed to cause a revolution in the provision of public services are the free availability of useful Open Data and the creation of Mobile Applications to allow Citizens to use these services on the move.

At this point, let’s go back to me traveling through my new city. I travel a lot for business and have to navigate my way through a lot of different cities. One of my abiding frustrations is that each new city I visit, I have to download a brand new set of apps for the transport systems, tourist attractions, food guides ect… My phone is now getting seriously crowded with these things. This is, when you think about it, completely unnecessary. It is the equivalent of me buying a new computer for America and another for Europe because they have different types of plug outlet. Of course what I do is travel with an adapter which allows me to plug my computer in no matter where in the world I am. The same exact principle applies to apps which offer city services such as transport or tourism. When you think about it, what changes from city to city is not what the app does (show you timetables, plan journeys, highlight points of interest) but simply the specific Data which it uses.

So why, I hear you cry, do the app developers not make apps which can plug into the Data of different cities? The answer can be complex but the short version is because many cities release their Open Data in different formats, like different plug types. This is exactly the challenge which Citadel on the Move is working to answer. Citadel is making it easier for cities to release their Open Data in easy-to-use formats. These common formats, like popular types of plug, make it easy for citizens to use this data effectively. Not content with making Open Data more accessible, Citadel also brings you template mobile applications. These templates are already designed to run on the Open Data from cities, making it easier for people to design mobile apps which deliver services like transport timetables or tourist information. Finally, and most importantly, Citadel Open Data formats and Citadel template applications function like a plug socket and a plug adapter, making it possible for me to use the same app in different cities.

The vision is simple. I should be able to start my week with a meeting in Manchester, fly to a conference in Ghent and end the week on a beach in Athens all using just one set of applications to navigate these very different cities.

To find out more about the Citadel on the Move project and get involved yourself, check out our website here.

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