Journey history as open data, and cooperation with developers

Last April, I blogged about Chromaroma and its use of Oyster journey data from Transport for London. Since then, I’ve continued to hold up Chromaroma as one of the best examples of what can be done with journey data, in spite of a lack of cooperation from the transit authority.

When I first covered Chromaroma, I pointed out that they were screen-scraping the Transport for London site in order to retrieve Oyster journey histories, and I discussed some potential options for avoiding what is an inherently inelegant process, including the use of OAuth for authentication, and the definition of a common format for journey history data interchange.

Now that I’ve proposed the development of a system based on journey data, I’d like to revisit how Chromaroma has been doing.
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Track work: it happens everywhere

In keeping with the new approach to track work previously announced, yesterday WMATA released a one year look-ahead for track work and station closures on the Metrorail system. As outlined when the scheme was announced, these are complete closures. No trains will operate through the affected areas, and shuttle buses will provide replacement service. Many of the closures are related to the Dulles Corridor Metrorail Project, and involve closing the Orange Line between East Falls Church and West Falls Church. Some of the closures are more extensive, such as between L’Enfant Plaza and Southern Ave., Glenmont and Fort Totten, and Pentagon City and King Street (not all on the same weekend, obviously).

In related news, London Underground issued another announcement yesterday concerning the impending suspension of the District and Circle lines between High Street Kensington and Edgware Road from July 23 to August 23. This four-week closure will permit substantial infrastructure upgrades: track renewal, including drainage improvements and power upgrades to support new rolling stock.

However, unlike WMATA, London Underground will not run any dedicated shuttles. The affected by the closure are all in Zone 1, an area well-served by Tube and local bus services. Many of the stations in the closed area are accessible from multiple lines, and at those stations, only the platforms for the District and Circle lines will be closed. For the remaining stations, passengers will be able to use nearby Tube stations and local bus services.

Already, complaints have begun to come in about WMATA’s new approach. But the reality is that these kinds of closures, both on Metrorail and the London Underground, are vital. Both systems have suffered from periods of underinvestment and decay, and now they need major overhaul in order to attain a state of good repair. For Metrorail riders, the situation is worse, because the Metrorail system doesn’t offer the same kind of redundancy as the Tube. WMATA generally has no choice but to run shuttle buses, and riders loathe shuttle buses. At the same time, the work must be done. For better or worse, the periods around holidays often have lower ridership than usual for the Metrorail system, and are ideal for performing track work which requires a major closure.
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Heritage trains and CBTC

Today (June 30, 2011) was the last day of service for the 1967 Tube Stock on the London Underground’s Victoria Line. The 1967 Stock had served the Victoria Line since it opened in 1968, but with the commissioning of new signalling (Invensys Rail’s DTG-R) along with the delivery of the 2009 Tube Stock, the 1967 Stock are no longer welcome on the Victoria Line. The new signalling means that the 2009 Tube Stock are the only trains which can run on the line in passenger service; the old system (used by the ’67 Tube Stock) will soon be decommissioned. Unfortunately, it does not seem likely that TfL will preserve an entire train, so today’s last run was probably the very last we will see of the 1967 Stock in passenger service, on any line.

At the same time, there’s a very good question to be asked: with the Victoria Line having been resignalled, where would a preserved 1967 Tube Stock run? Of course, the train could theoretically run elsewhere on the Tube, but soon there won’t be many other places to go. On the Jubilee Line, SelTrac is now in use across the entire length of the line; the conventional signal heads are all bagged up, and the trainstops pinned down. Resignalling of the Northern Line with SelTrac is in progress, and the Picadilly Line will follow it. The sub-surface lines are not far behind; according to news from TfL, they are to be resignalled with Bombardier CITYFLO 650. Eventually the whole of the Tube will be resignalled, and then where will preserved trains go?
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Where does Chromaroma’s data come from?

A few days ago, I was reading about Chromaroma, “a game that shows you your movements and location as you swipe your Oyster Card in and out of the Tube”. Immediately, a question came to mind: where are they getting the journey data from? I poked around the site and couldn’t readily find an answer, so I decided to try signing up. My own Oyster account no longer works, so I was not able to fully complete the sign-up process. That said, it looks like they’re just impersonating users and screen-scraping data from the Oyster online interface, very much akin to what Yodlee does with financial data. It’s not the worst possible approach, but it still has its flaws. If a user changes their password, the data-fetching process will fail. If TfL changes the design of the Oyster online interface, the process will fail. In the worst-case scenario, if Chromaroma suffers a breach, user data, including online credentials, could be compromised. If users have used those credentials on other sites, they could face a real problem. The ideas behind Chromaroma are sound, but we can learn from the web development community at large to provide better ways to access private transit data (like journey histories), and to provide better formats for the distribution of that data.
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Open payment for London

Transport for London announced today their intention to deploy an open payment system across the entire Transport for London network (including the Tube, DLR, Tramlink, buses, and river services) in time for the Olympics. I’ve been hearing rumblings about open payment in London over the past few months, but now we have a concrete announcement and timeline. On the face of it, this is a good thing, at least for the many visitors who will be coming to London during the Olympics in 2012. For these visitors, a contactless bankcard is all they’ll need to travel on any of TfL’s services. Given that European banks tend to be ahead of their US counterparts when it comes to adopting new technology, I would expect that penetration of bankcards which support contactless payment is higher in the UK and across Europe—so this may turn out to be a real boon for visitors to London, and even regular users of TfL services who’ve yet to get an Oyster card. At the same time, Oyster works well—40 million cards have been issued, and Oyster has become the principal means of payment across TfL services. Given Oyster’s success, why tamper with what works? Are the benefits of open payment sufficiently compelling to outweigh the risks?
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