Where do you think you’re going? (Building Blocks of the Digital Economy)

Thursday, July 2, 2009 13:05 | Filed in Public Sector, Technology, Travel

Despite a somewhat iffy title, this was actually a particularly enjoyable session. The basic premise was that there would be seven different speakers during this section (in three mini-blocks), each of whom would only be given five minutes to speak (to ‘wow’ the audience), and then there would be the opportunity for a few questions to be asked at the end of each of the mini-blocks

Block 1 — Managing Large Datasets

First up was John Polak of Imperial College, who, despite a tendency to talk in what I can only term as academese, had some very interesting points. He was talking about how the transport datascape was shifting from low-volume published information (what is the timetable for this route) to much higher volume real time information (where is my train now? what is the status of the problem on the route between Leeds and Garforth?), and that data is now much more cross-sector.

Next up was Margaret Bell from Newcastle University who was talking about the Transport Observatory. This looked at mapping actual traffic data, and air quality/pollution data and modelling what happens to these flows under different conditions. This enables those planning transport to investigate what would happen if certain changes were made (what would happen if you added a bus lane here, what impact on pollution would it have if we changed the order of these traffic lights and so on).

I asked Margaret whether changes in working patterns were (flexi-time, home working etc) were seeing a reduction in pollution, but she suggested that while peak flows were still extremely high, they were perhaps not as high as they used to be — but were now lasting longer. In other words we were seeing a slight stretch of the peak flow times…

The Transport Observatory was a fascinating use of data, and I’m planning to get in touch with Margaret to find out a bit more about this work…

User Generated Content

…was the next session, where Caroline Bartle talked about word of mouth influences — how informal travel information is increasingly shared through social networks, how people are using websites like trip advisor more. She then talked about her cycology project which looked at the experiences of people cycling (and sharing their experiences) in … um .. Bristol, I think it was.

Helen Matthews from Nexus was next up, talking about maintaining a good commercial reputation online. (Tip: don’t get people so hacked off with you that they write a blog post which still appears in the top ten if you search for lothian buses). Or, to use the example supplied in the session, don’t get people so hacked off with you that they create a facebook group called Merseytravel are thieving bastards!

She explained that the internet is increasingly the way that people and businesses are choosing to communicate. Over 1,000 concessionary travel passes were renewed online in the past year, showing that an increasing number of older people are choosing to use the internet also.

The question is what information to deliver. 85% of people want real time information; 23% of people want access to information on their mobiles, and 16% get their public transport information from the web.

I commented about the ‘text a bus stop code’ service used in by the GMPTE, which allows someone to text the code belonging to a bus stop and find out which buses will be next from that stop. This is obviously of greater use if the bus stop does not already have a timetable on it, and would be of greater use still if real-time information could be used (e.g. if your bus is running ten minutes late, it won’t say you’ve already missed it).

Helen indicated that this “sort of thing” was something that Nexus would be introducing in the next “couple of years”. Not entirely sure I’ve ever seen a more vague commitment than that, but it’s a start!

Mike Parker from Orangebus continued the User Generated Content theme, talking about sites like trapster, which shares information on Police speed cameras. A further, unmentioned user-generated content travelly thing is the twitter account @uktrains which is an unofficial resource of all disruption to the UK trains network, with all of the relevant information being supplied as tweets from passengers using the services.

One of the things to note about user generated content is that while people worry that it may be wrong, where it is incorrect, it is generally corrected very quickly by ‘right’ information.

Pedestrian Localisation, Navigation and Tracking

I’ll say one thing for the people behind this conference: while they can organise a bloody good conference at very short notice, they aren’t really so hot on snappy titles for bits of it.

Chris Kray started out by asking whether or not pedestrian navigation was a solved problem.

My experience of this event would suggest not. I hadn’t been to Hoult’s Yard before, but I’d seen the location on a map. I’d noted down the name of various streets. I’d even gone so far as to get on the correct bus. Unfortunately, I didn’t know exactly where I was supposed to get off, so despite getting off the bus at 9:15am, it was forty minutes of solid walking later (mostly walking round in circles) that I found where the venue actually was.

Tip for anyone wanting directions to Hoult’s Yard in future. Find the pub The Free Trade. Walk about 500 yards further east. There you go. Now if someone could have just told me that in the first place…

So no, I didn’t think pedestrian navigation was a solved problem. Not all of us have iPhones or alternatively inbuilt satnav.

But one of the other issues with pedestrian navigation was that pedestrians don’t necessarily have to walk along the edges of roads. Computer algorithms giving directions will lead people alongside the road (or maybe, if they are smart enough, a footpath). However, pedestrians can do other things such as “walking through a shopping centre” or through a public park instead of needing to go all of the way around it.

The problem with this of course is that there is unlikely to be any information as to whether these paths are suitable for pushchairs, are wheelchair friendly etc, so without that sort of information (or indeed an up to date map of the shopping centre), mapping programs are likely to continue to ignore these sorts of routes, despite the fact that they might be the best option for the majority of pedestrians.

Next was Ray Sherrington, talking about Vulnerable User Tracking (from Sunderland’s Digital Challenge). Well, I say he was talking about it, but mostly he was just showing us a video where a parent of a child with ADHD and Asperger’s talked about how worried she had used to be for her 16 year old child, who could get easily distracted, wander off, and end up not knowing where he was, or how to get to where he was supposed to be.

Until of course those nice people from Digital Challenge turned up and sorted them out with some Blackberries that allowed the pair of them to track one another — so if he got lost she could work out where he was and either direct him, or come out and collect him instead of having to drive round looking along random streets. It’s obviously made a massive difference to their lives (and their stress levels), and her son’s independence and confidence has been increased also.

Ah, it’s always nice to end a session on a happy note :-)

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3 Comments to Where do you think you’re going? (Building Blocks of the Digital Economy)

  1. Zack says:

    July 2nd, 2009 at 3:34 pm

    On the pedestrian thing, I spend a lot of time meeting companies in obscure places, so when I upgraded to a phone with GPS this year I was curious to see how much it would help with the last mile problem. The answer so far, as you say, is “sort of.”

    Firstly, cheap (and therefore pervasive) GPS devices are built to a cost, and the aspect of quality that suffers is usually satellite lock and/or power efficiency. Mine is great for geotagging photos in the Dales, but at best so-so in urban environments. There are several locations I have tried in Manchester and London where it simply will acquire not enough satellites and it is therefore no more accurate than asking a policeman. (Or scally, if truly desperate. If you see a cockney in what you thought was Manchester then I suppose you know you are REALLY lost…)

    Secondly, this highlights how important user-generated content is, because the exact location has frequently been posted to Google by the great unwashed (hence the “unverified” tag.)

    On the “thieving bastards” example, ISTR there was a story last year about a couple of Northern Rail employees receiving actionable abuse on Facebook, will see if I can dig it out.

    On an unrelated note, what the hell happened to numbering buildings on streets? On Whitworth St in Manchester for example, I would say about every tenth building is numbered and the rest are named or have only company information on the facade. Makes for a lot of unnecessary walking up and down to home in on the last 50 yards.

    “Computer algorithms giving directions will lead people alongside the road (or maybe, if they are smart enough, a footpath). ”

    The algorithms will do what they have been asked to do with the data that they have – so we need to switch from algorithms to heuristics and other mining techniques; and as you say, we need better granularity in the data. We also need some common sense in the planning system to spot dumb questions. The response to “when is the next Tube to Charing Cross from Embankment” should be “I suggest you walk instead.”

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