Mind the app: TfL must keep its open data promise

The developers behind online travel game Chromaroma say Transport for London's attitude to data is holding back innovation

Online multiplayer game Chromaroma depends on Oyster card travel data from Transport for London for its operation. In a recent blog post, reproduced in full here, the game's developers openly criticise the London transport body for changing data presentation without consultation, and for a lack of vision that is inimical to innovation, open data and collaboration:

Developing Chromaroma has been one of the hardest things any of us have ever done.

Technologically there were huge barriers to overcome, but perhaps the biggest barriers have been political ones — not within government, but within Transport for London (TfL).

Some context before we go further: Chromaroma is a project by Mudlark, funded by Channel 4 and ScreenWM. It is not officially affiliated with or funded by TfL. The data we use to make the game runs from the Journey History published for registered PAYG Oyster card users at tfl.gov.uk/oyster. Every morning, our system goes and 'fetches' each player's journeys and runs them through the game mechanics.

Toby Barnes Chromaroma

Chromaroma's Toby Barnes says Transport for London's attitude to data is holding back innovation. Photo credit: Chromaroma

TfL has recently, without any conversation, changed the way the Journey History is presented, making it more difficult to run the game. We are building new bits of the game to talk to their system again, but this has been taxing.

Since the beginning of the project, we've been speaking to people at TfL about what we wanted to do, and what, if we had co-operation, it could be. Their first reactions were of real appreciation and excitement. Some of the people that we've been working with there have been amazing, and have taken their belief in the project around to other departments. The marketing department, the press department and the teams in charge of behavioural change all get it — and they see the value.

Sadly, there are still TfL departments that seem unwilling to get it. More importantly, there are individuals who don't seem to see the world they are operating in, and it appears it is these people who are pulling the strings.

Open data?

Influential people within the organisation seem opposed to innovation, open data, and working with external developers. Despite all the talk of open data and new ideas, there is still an overriding attitude of not taking risks or deviating from the status quo. The general concerns are only of cost, and not those of the future. Or the consumer.

Influential people within TfL seem opposed to innovation, open data, and working with external developers.

Our favourite TfL quote has to be: "Who wants to play games? In this age of austerity, no one wants to play games. I can't see any value in this type of website."

With the Olympics around the corner, and NFC [near-field communication] payment on people's lips, TfL has a lot of work ahead of it. It is going to need help to deliver to its own digital strategy. Working with developers, third parties and, in a wider sense, commuters themselves will bring benefits to us, the taxpayer, the organisation and the Mayor. Continuing to work in a pre-internet age is just not viable.

We have discussed many things with Transport for London. We have offered to pay for an OAuth [open authorisation standard] system, or create an 'opt-in' service for the 10,000 registered users so that they can access their own travel data for use in the game. While these talks have been going on, we've been exhibited in the V&A [the Victoria and Albert Museum, London] and MoMA NYC [The Museum of Modern Art, New York].

Every video, article and blog post about the Chromaroma project has referred to London Underground and, therefore, Transport for London. We've been contacted by huge media companies, banks, bank cards, publishers, FMCG [fast-moving consumer goods] companies, and countless advertising agencies, who all see the value in the game.

Within the Mayor's Office, Kulveer Ranger, director of Environment and Digital London, is pushing open data — see his recent comments to Wired magazine — and giving consumers the ability to make choices. This looks increasingly like shouting at a brick wall when talking about TfL.

Holding London back

Number 10 and the current government are keen to open up data, and enable wider communities to build services upon public data. At this stage, if London can't make it work, how will the rest of the country? With Tech City on the horizon, the Olympics, and a stronger push for digital engagement all on various agendas across the capital, will TfL hold London back?

With Tech City on the horizon, the Olympics, and a stronger push for digital engagement across the capital, will TfL hold London back?

Even with all of the above on the table, there are still repeats of what happened with Malcolm Barclay's app — changes being made without any regard for the services built on top of TfL's own. It's not malicious behaviour. It's just incredibly short-sighted. It seems OK for commercial firms like Microsoft to step in to save TfL — see the TrackerNet debacle — but not for new innovative ideas, or for SMEs.

We are in a position where the people who could stop these mistakes happening again still don't want to talk about how to proceed. Wired wrote an article back in October last year, Does TfL really want to open up its data?. Has anything changed? A person to talk to would be nice, especially someone who answered emails.

Privacy safeguards

There are the usual excuses regarding opening up data — for example, what if someone's wife sees that her husband is going to see his mistress? Our answer has always been:"Stop being marriage councillors and run a transport system that we can be proud of." There already are, and will always be, safeguards in place that protect people's privacy. Where an individual's data is concerned, open data does not mean complete transparency. Chromaroma knows and practises that principle.

We've always worked with the 48-hour delay on published travel data. We designed the whole game around the assumption that this would always be in place. We've spent significant amounts of budget on code, lawyers and advisers making sure that we are as safe, secure and trustworthy as TfL when it comes to handling data. Privacy is of the utmost importance to us and always has been.

We've spent untold hours gathering and presenting case studies that show that when you educate users about data — why it is held, let them see it, let them play with it — then they value it, and by association, TfL, more.

Since Chromaroma's inception we've been talking to TfL. We didn't simply make the game, unveil it, and expect co-operation. The development of the app and the conversation with TfL happened in tandem. They know how much it cost to make and they know how much it is potentially worth — to them, to London and to UK plc. Somehow this is ignored and we find ourselves, three months after a large public launch, still struggling to talk to the right people.

The obvious thing for them to do is to talk APIs, and not just old, out-of-date spreadsheets of travel data. As they're consistently told from without and within — spreadsheets are not open data, and open data is not hard and it is not expensive. It shows commitment to the community, and very soon, to government policy. We have continually asked for technical contacts for developer engagement, even for someone who knows how the thing works. Open data is an ecosystem, not an upload site.

TfL: please, step up and do it. Talk to us. This isn't just for Chromaroma, this is for all developers and all passengers.

Open up, and see what great things people will do with your data.

This article originally appeared as How TfL Are Keeping Your Data Captive & Holding London Back In The Process on Chromaroma's blog.

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