Opening up data is the way forward for travel says ODI Leeds founder

Publishing passenger data from the principal operator on the East Coast Main Line could be the catalyst needed for better transport decision making, according to the founder of a leading tech organisation in Leeds.

Opportunity knocks: The bidding process for the East Coast Main Line can be made more transparent by having open data on passenger numbers and revenues.

London North Eastern Railway (LNER) is the publicly owned principal operator on the Leeds to London King’s Cross route.

The Government terminated the Stagecoach and Virgin franchise earlier this year after it failed to hit revenue targets and ran out of money.

Sign up to our Business newsletter

Sign up to our Business newsletter

Paul Connell, founder and head of innovation at the ODI (Open Data Institute) Leeds, believes the region’s recent transport woes are a data issue and that devolved powers would enable better decision making.

Paul Connell, founder of ODI Leeds, says tansport data needs to be open to allow for informed decision making.

Mr Connell told The Yorkshire Post: “East Coast Main Line franchises have gone bust three times now but the usage data isn’t published.

“There’s an easy fix, which is to publish the data about how many people are using the train from Leeds to London.

“Everyone then bids on a level playing field. They don’t overbid. They don’t base their models on hope. It’s actually based on real data.

“It’s owned by the public at the moment so why can’t we see transparently how it’s used and what the revenues are so that if it goes for franchising again we don’t lose money.

“You can have an open conversation about whether it’s right to have it privatised or not. At the moment it’s all smoke and mirrors.”

ODI Leeds is has been working with Transport for the North on publishing open data.

Mr Connell says that the region is currently hamstrung because open data doesn’t exist while in the capital Transport for London has the power to share and integrate data.

He said: “The rest of the country is dealt with differently to London in that data is not open. In London the data is available, you can get it and use it.

“If we had better data infrastructure, we’d have much better transport infrastructure.

“For example you don’t know how much it is to get on a bus before you get on it. You’ve got six different apps on your phone to get around the region.”

The data expert believes that Leeds is underperforming in comparison to other similar sized cities across the world due to “centralised decision making”.

Mr Connell, who is an environmental scientist by training, says he can’t see any reason why decisions that affect the city couldn’t be made in Leeds.

He added: “Every service is running on data. Decisions are made on data. Decisions are made away from a place by people looking at the wrong data or data that they want to make a political decision on. It has an impact.”

By being given more control over transport the region can use data to measure factors such as how much investment is needed and impact on air quality.

ODI Leeds, which has nine staff members, has founded Open Transport North with the aim to deliver open innovation with data to improve the transport network.

Mr Connell says Leeds is a city that is open to collaboration with people and institutions willing to work with one another to solve problems.

“The more open you are, the more people are willing to join in with you,” he added.

The head of innovation at ODI Leeds says this collaborative ethos goes beyond Leeds and wider than the city region.

ODI Leeds has also been working with Ofcom to help the telecommunications regulator understand different challenges.

The organisation identified, with help from the RAC Foundation, mobile coverage blackspots that may leave motorists who have had a breakdown stranded.

“Ofcom didn’t know about that challenge because they’re regulating it from a telecoms perspective,” Mr Connell said.

ODI Leeds leading the way in a network of global data nodes

Set up in 2013, ODI Leeds is a ‘node’ of the Open Data Institute, set up by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the world wide web, and Sir Nigel Shadbolt, professor of artificial intelligence at Jesus College Oxford. There’s a network of around 30 nodes across the world with each operating effectively as a franchise.

Paul Connell said: “We are the most successful node of ODI. We are what they call a pioneer node, which allows us to be a mini version of them.

“We describe ourselves as a mission-led non-profit organisation but we receive no funding. We have to generate all fees ourselves. We are a commercial entity as well.”

The organisation also provides collaborative workspace at Munro House in Leeds, where it is based.