from the going-off-the-rails dept
One of the richest seams of open data concerns transport. After all, by their very nature, transport systems generate huge amounts of new data every day -- times, routes, travel options. Similarly, huge numbers of people use multiple means of transport, which means there is a big potential audience for analyses of that data. And it's definitely in the interest of transport operators to make that information freely available so that developers can use it in new ways, since that is likely to make traveling easier, and lead to increased custom.
Despite that manifest logic, transport companies have been slow to release that data in a form that developers can use. And even when they do, it often comes hedged around with conditions that make it useless. Here's an example from the UK, where Alex Hewson has been trying to get hold of live train data to create applications using it.
As his fascinating blog post explains, something called the Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC) collates the primary data:
Through its subsidiary TISL ("Train Information Services Limited", more commonly known as NRE / National Rail Enquiries) ATOC owns a datasource called Darwin. If you want an API for querying live train running information complete with all the delays and cancellations at any given moment they're the only shop in town.
Fair enough, you might think, since it's their data. But it's not quite so simple:
[ATOC] look a bit like a public body but aren't, instead taking funding from the various train operators. ATOC are fond of making the claim that they don't take a penny of public money but it's somewhat disingenuous: their funding comes from train operators and many of those have been subsidized by [UK] taxes.
To be exact, the UK's train operators receive over $6 billion from taxpayers each year. This means that there is a strong case for the train data to be released as open data -- over and above the fact that doing so will probably increase the number of people traveling by train, which has got to be good news for the train operators that fund ATOC.
As a series of blog posts by Hewson reveals, the relationship between ATOC and developers has not been of the best, especially once a formal license to use the data was required in 2009.
During a "Developer Engagement Day" in January this year, and responding, perhaps, to criticism over the way it makes this publicly-funded data available, NRE expressed a desire to work with the development community more constructively. Hewson was naturally keen to see the details of the license that was being offered in the wake of this new openness, and noted a couple of unusual elements:
There are clauses saying you'll lose access to the data if you bring TISL into "disrepute" and that the signatory may not publicly discuss the subject without written consent from TISL.
It gets worse:
15.2. Either party shall be entitled to terminate the Agreement on notice without liability at any time if:
Disrepute is a fabulously broad word -- it covers anything that blackens their name even if what you said was true. In other words you aren't allowed to criticise them.
15.3.1. the Customer brings TISL, the TOCs or the passenger rail industry into disrepute
TISL/ATOC clearly still has a lot to learn about how to work with developers, to say nothing of what it means to make information generated with the support of taxpayers freely available as open data, as is fast becoming the norm in many countries.
No public announcement, communication or circular (other than to the extent required by law) concerning the subject matter of this Agreement shall be made or despatched [sic] by the Customer without the prior written consent of TISL.
WTF. You can't use the live UK train data without accepting a gagging clause.
By a happy coincidence, the body that oversees the national railways in the UK, the "Office of Rail Regulation", has been conducting a review into "how NRE deals with applications for access to its RTTI database ('Darwin')." I'm sure many of the developers who have had dealings with ATOC's subsidiary over the last few years will have submitted their views on this topic. I can't wait to read them.