São Paulo starts tech-driven plan to improve transport system

The city government will promote a hackathon based on open data about the bus network
Written by Angelica Mari, Contributing Writer on

The São Paulo city government will use open data and a skilled crowd of techies to try and improve its precarious public transport network.  

São Paulo’s metro network is efficient but small, with only 74km of track compared with 337km of track in New York City. As a result, the roads are packed full with buses - and car ownership in Brazil rose 32 percent to 7.4 million during the past decade, which partly explains why São Paulo is often nicknamed "the city of 19 million traffic jams."

To try and tackle these acute urban mobility issues, the Mayor's office will be promoting a hackathon this coming weekend (October 26-27) to develop applications focused on the provision of public transport in São Paulo.

The participants will follow a list of demands and needs of public transport users that have been identified by the government; criteria will include the creativity and technical quality of the applications created over the weekend. There will be money prizes of R$ 8,000 ($3,674), R$ 4,000 ($1,837) and R$ 3,000 ($1,377) for the top three proposals.

The applications will be created using the data made available by SPTrans, São Paulo's public transport authority, since last week. This is significant because until now, only Google has had access to that information, which includes bus routes, timetables and real-time positioning of the buses.

Any user, Brazilian or foreign, can sign up to use the data after agreeing to a simple set of guidelines that can be found here.

My own idea - crowdsourcing bus maps in São Paulo

Most bus stops in São Paulo are just simple shelters or just wooden poles with no information at all about the itineraries or timetables. With that in mind, I have tried submitting the idea of crowdsourcing a visual representation of itineraries using the design of the London bus maps - most commonly known as "spider maps."

The idea was submitted exactly two years ago to the Gilberto Kassab administration and I worked on that for nearly six months. The plan was to get an IT company willing to put together a map-building system with various social features for free, so the citizens of São Paulo would use lego-style building blocks based on the London spider maps, to create a real map of bus routes, add points of interest around it, build bespoke routes according to interest and so on. The information entered would be edited by other users, Wikipedia-style.

These maps would then be available online and also as physical maps available at bus stops. As well as getting that crowdsourced access to information, the reward for the citizens would be to see credits on the maps, as designers and editors would get credits.

In our plan, the IT company supplying the map-building system would get some kind of marketing support printed on the maps, but the real carrot was the kudos of running a major civic project that could later be referenced.

My husband and I then sought permission from Transport for London, the London transport authority to use the map design, which was granted at no cost to São Paulo - and Mayor Boris Johnson thought the collaboration was a great idea, so we thought we had enough backing to get the idea off the ground.

A typical bus stop in São Paulo. Image credit: Mark Hillary (cc)

After presenting the idea, we had several meetings with the São Paulo city government, the city's transport body SPTrans and the British Consulate, who was representing the London Mayor's office in the discussions.

While the transport body's marketing people thought this would be a perfect way to change people's perceptions of the public transport administration by empowering them, the IT management of SPTrans talked of the complexity of the system in São Paulo - over 10 million bus journeys daily, several thousand individual bus routes, routes changing quite often...

At the start of 2012, we gave up on the project when it became obvious that some of those stakeholders would not enable us to proceed. We asked three things:

1. The information on bus itineraries, route numbers and so on. This was something that was provided to Google, with people at SPTrans almost solely dedicated to that task, on a weekly basis;

2. Agreement to go ahead and release a tender to find an IT company willing to build and host the system - the draft RFI we have submitted (in Portuguese) can be found here;

3. Marketing of the initiative across the communications channels of the public transport network, to get people interested in helping out.

At the time, it seemed impossible to get SPTrans to release the same data they were providing to Google, due to "security concerns." We then made a very last attempt to salvage the work that had been done over those six months and suggested that the bus data be open for all and promote a hackathon amongst high school students at technical state schools. All we heard from the marketing department at that stage was that the IT team was not willing to help.

Funnily enough, in all those meetings with government officials, the recurring question was: "what's in it for you?". They could not believe that me and my husband would devote time, contacts and expertise without any monetary compensation.

The answer always was that ever since the idea came about the intention was to help the city - and not just those who own internet-enabled smartphones but all bus users, by printing crowdsourced maps that could be used anywhere in São Paulo.

So the efforts from the new administration to open public transport data and get citizens involved were great news to hear, despite of my previous experience. Now, anyone will be able to create something valuable for all without any need for endless meetings, internal politics and red tape. And that is real progress.

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