Where do you think you’re going? (Directions of Travel)

Tuesday, June 30, 2009 7:20 | Filed in Public Sector, Technology, Travel, twitter

The Where Do You Think You’re Going..? conference about ‘Digital Transport’ was held at Hoult’s Yard in Newcastle last week and I was one of the attendees.

The event was split into four main parts, with a few bits of housekeeping stuff chucked in at the start – an introduction to Hoult’s Yard, a bit of history about it, an introduction to the event and so on, and some welcome stuff from Hannah Bryan. I have to give Hannah a special mention as the conference was arranged in a remarkably short space of time — seemingly about three weeks from basic idea to conference — and it seemed to run without any hitches.

The basic premise was to have an informal event, with the opportunity for people to contribute and joiin in the debate as to how exactly to harness new technologies within the sphere of transport

The first part of event “proper” was entitled Directions of Travel, and, in common with the rest of the event, featured speakers who would speak briefly and then allow the opportunity for questions.

Eric Sampson

…who was chairing this event, kicked off this first session. He looked at the issue of broadband availability per hundred people (note: as differentiated from broadband takeup). He noted that the UK’s broadband availability per hundred people was fourth in the world, with only Denmark, the Netherlands, and South Korea having greater availability of broadband (although I have been unable to find any reference to confirm this).

The question was, how will this increased use of broadband change the way we use transport?

Nick Illsley

…the Chief Executive from Transort Direct was next up, with the plan to tell us how. He started with a history of transport, and how the rail system led to the idea of ‘common time’: it’s no good having a published timetable if different towns think that the current time differs considerable.

He suggested also that transport is a form of communication and therefore depends heavily on information.

Transport Direct’s goal is to join up the various modes of transport — rail, bus, coach, light rail, car, ferry, air, walking, cycling … and seemingly anything else you can think of.

Nick said that:

The complexity of life requires an awareness of location and the ability to travel between placesNick Illsley

…and that what is more important to consider is the fact of your travelling, rather than which particular ‘piece of tin’ you use to travel in.

He indicated that Transport Direct had 350,000 bus stops coded to within 1m accuracy (they had expected 330,000 but when adding the data, discovered that various networks had 20,000 more bus stops than they had realised). This data has now been shared with google maps to enable more mashing.

Here he insisted that the quality of the data is key: if there are 100 billion public transport ‘pairings’ (based on possible starting points and destinations), then 99% accuracy would still result in one billion potential journeys being wrong.

As transport is becoming more localised — initially devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and with the Local Transport Act devolves power and responsibility further to the Local Authority Level.

Nick also raised an interested question for anyone designing a transport planning interface for the end user. Should you consider the end user to be more like Spock or Homer Simpson? The Spock interface would be a complex interface with a lot of options, would require more initial effort by the user but would result in the best possible result. The Homer Simpson interface however would be much, much simpler to operate, and would not necessarily return the best result, but would return a better result than would otherwise have been found.

He suggested that we may need to consider when developing journey planners that the Homer Simpson route may be the most appropriate.

He also compared what he felt the public and private sectors do well in comparison to one another: for example, the public sector can maintain higher data standards, better data collation and audit, and can address issues of market failure. In comparison, he suggested that the private sector was better at customer facing services and revenue generation (and also bizarrely customer care — has he tried a call centre recently?) — with the basic idea being to combine the best of the two in terms of transport.

I have to raise a personal objection here: except possibly in regards to market failure (e.g. there’s no market for telecomms companies to put broadband on the Orkneys), I think it’s simplistic and frequently wrong to simplify this much: it’s a stale argument to assume that in some areas the private sector will always be better than the public sector (and vice versa). If you’re going to make that argument without something to back it up, it sounds simply as though you are trying to reinforce your own prejudices and a priori assumptions.

Anyway, moving on from Nick, next up was…

James Burke

…from Lovle. James, also known as @deburca, wanted us to consider what is likely to happen with the web in the next 20 years.

My somewhat cynical take on this was that the web over the next 20 years will seem to consist of a huge number of acroynms and neologisms (‘the new…’, ‘web 2.0′) whereas in actuality it will simply consider evolving as it has done up to now.

One of the key things about the internet is that people don’t need to know how it works in order to create web pages. This is quite key. You get geeks like me who will carefully consider whether they should be using an em element for emphasis, and will deliberately choose which HTML is used to produce their required output, but you have so many people with WYSIWYG editors that anyone can add content to the web, whether or not they know how it works.

Some of the changes that have happened to the way the web is being used recently include the introduction of tagging, categorisation (folksonomy, if you will), databases and the idea of ‘teaching the machine’. James suggests therefore that the key elements to ‘web 2.0′ are collaboration and sharing. As opposed to say, rounded corners

James talked a little about open source and creative commons licensing — emphasising that this is not the same as dumping something in the public domain — which was probably completely new to half the audience (the ones with a ‘transport’ perspective, or ‘trannies’ as someone called them), and second nature to the technies in the audience.

He also pointed out that despite increasing assumptions of bandwidth consumption, not every great emerging new technology or service needs massive bandwidth: Twitter is one of those runaway success thingies but can run off very low bandwidth. He also made a reference to internet trolls but I was disappointed to see that no discussion of Godwin’s Law emerged.

In his thoughts on the net future, he also considered that more and more household appliances may become internet enabled (so you can maybe switch the washing machine on online so your clothes will be ready when you get home from work). Personally, I’m just after a toaster I can run off a USB jack. At least then I’d be able to make toast on the train.

The final person of the first session was the…


…or @Paul_A_Smith as he is otherwise known. Paul studied astrophysics (so I suppose that makes him a rocket scientist?) before ending up working mostly in radio.

The tale of the twitchhiker is well worth a read in detail, but the basic premise is that Paul decided to see how far he could get — with no money for travel or accomodation — from his starting point, relying on the kindness and generosity of people who contacted him on twitter. I don’t want to give the game away — read the story yourself — but it’s not too much of a spoiler to suggest that if he’d only managed to make it from Newcastle to Cramlington it would hardly have ended up with him on telly in more than one country…

If you get the opportunity to hear Paul speak and relate his twitchhiking adventures, or if he finally gets round to getting it all written up properly and gets the book published, do not miss the opportunity. He’s certainly a good speaker.

Paul, not surprisingly, was talking mostly about the power of twitter, and why it’s suddenly taken off so well in 2009. He puts this mostly down (in the UK at least) to @stephenfry and Jonathan Ross. Stephen for his love of twitter, and his status as The Offical Uncle To The Entire Nation, and Jonathan because during his suspension from the BBC and the associated media witchhunt, the media were determined to get their claws in, so they’d talk about what he’d been saying on twitter, providing more publicity for Twitter in the process…

He also talked about how it has influenced and been used by the news: whilst frequently quoted and dismissed as seemingly banal (the answer of course to people worried about überbanality on twitter is simply don’t follow the boring people), the first pictures of the plane landed in the Hudson were posted on Twitpic by someone on a Hudson ferry.

There was also obviously the coverage and information about the recent Iranian election, where twitter was an essential way for information (and disinformation) to be spread. We’re at a stage now where 1 in every 350 visits to a website are from a link in twitter.

He provided examples of how twitter can be used by various companies for customer care and suggested that as far as councils go, Newcastle Council were leading the way in how to use twitter. Which is of course, entirely true, they’ve been doing a grand job and deserve all the credit coming their way. I’ll just re-iterate this any councils wanting to use twitter should use Newcastle as a model.

And by this point the smell of the cooking food was beginning to cause people to salivate and gnaw upon the table legs, so there was a unilateral declaration of lunch…

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7 Comments to Where do you think you’re going? (Directions of Travel)

  1. digidrummer (graham jordan) says:

    June 30th, 2009 at 6:46 am

    RT @ThePickards: #wdytyg Where do you think you’re going? (Directions of Travel) http://tinyurl.com/lgedgu #fb

  2. Graham Jordan says:

    June 30th, 2009 at 2:04 pm

    Jack, could you please tag these with ‘wdytyg’ so they’ll show on the blog where we are dropping a blog search rss?


  3. Zack says:

    June 30th, 2009 at 2:05 pm

    “[...] as transport is becoming more localised — initially devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and with the Local Transport Act devolves power and responsibility further to the Local Authority Level.”

    The major problem with the current network is that the endpoints don’t stack up, and it’s interesting to read about the progress you mention in this direction; but going too far with devolution could kill public transport completely because the endpoints will drift further apart.

    Did they mention anything about integration of bus and train timetables? Trivial example as an illustration: in Knutsford the only buses to the dozen villages around there leave 5 minutes BEFORE the only train coming in from Manchester, so there’s no sensible way to use the bus for the “last mile” problem and get to Barclays, Astra Zeneca, or any of the dozens of companies on the science park without driving.

    The “best of both worlds” approach is an interesting debate, given that the current model is approximately that the government pays private outfits to reduce cost, and bugger any other considerations including customer service.

    “Should you consider the end user to be more like Spock or Homer Simpson?”

    Both must be available – and you can use the same infrastructure to deliver both, so the incremental cost would be surprisingly little.

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