Collecting accurate, standardised data is one of the main challenges in further developing public transport – especially in rapidly developing countries and urban areas. This information is often an essential factor in improving and planning new services and infrastructure.  

In order to get a better idea of this unique challenge and the possible solutions, we spoke to Devin de Vries, co-founder of WhereIsMyTransport, a company in Cape Town, South Africa that is specialised in public transport data.

What are the issues facing mobility in cities in developing countries?

Developing cities face two major mobility challenges. The first is the provision of services, which is solved by investing in infrastructure and implementing systems such as public transit, or by private sector providers with things like ‘informal transit’. The second one, and where we see many cities across emerging regions, is actually more pressing and needs to be handled at the same time a city is considering building something like a BRT: the provision of information. 

Every time a city puts a vehicle on the road, there should be a system to collect, create, and disseminate the information people need to access the system, whether it’s public or private or better yet, all systems integrated together. This is a problem faced by all cities, but especially in emerging ones where the focus has been on infrastructure and less on how to help people actually use the services that have been built. Administrators and operators also need information, on the real use and performance of their systems, in order to improve them and make them feasible. 

How does a company like WhereIsMyTransport help solve this need for data?

WhereIsMyTransport focuses on the challenge of getting the right information about mobility to the people who need it, when and where they need it. Rather than provide a single app that commuters can use, we think that every city should have apps that speak to that local context. Instead, the WhereIsMyTransport platform is an open digital platform for integrated transport data. We capture and connect data from all the transport services in a city—whether they’re formal or informal, public or private—into this platform to provide information on those services to the people who need it. The platform includes features like multi-modal journey planning (capable of combining across modes and agencies), a fare calculator that takes into account complex fare products like weekly and monthly passes, and many other features.  

The reason we created this platform is that many cities are looking for ways to disseminate data to their citizens. Every city should be able to do this through a number of endpoints, whether they’re mobile apps, digital signage, web or social media; all of those things can connect to the platform and draw information out of it. The platform is scalable, flexible, and can be used anywhere. 

Centralising movement data into a single platform also enables communication between agencies and riders (agencies can instantly create messages about delays or alerts that are formatted and sent to any endpoint, from apps to Twitter) and reporting to analyse the performance of a specific service at any time. 

How do you collect data and what do you do to improve the data collection?  

Capturing data in emerging cities is probably the biggest challenge we face. We have a number of different models that we employ depending on the circumstance, but we always focus on building strong relationships with the local service providers and working with them to capture and understand their service. We also partner with local organisations that are interested in getting transport data to their fellow citizens. Our platform is also able to accept data in any format, so we’re no longer restricted to GTFS files, making it much faster and easier to bring a system on board.  

How is this data used? 

As soon as we have verified data for a particular service in a city, it is available through our platform. We make it very easy for anyone who has accurate transport data, whether they’re a citizen enthusiast or a Transport Authority, to upload it into the platform and get started. We have a number of agencies in South Africa that are also currently using the communications aspect of the platform, instantly sending messages to their riders, which update their journey results in real time.  

What do you bring to mobility in developing countries? 

We bring the ability to easily access information about mobility. Developing countries have the potential to leapfrog the transport systems of established ones if they plan for information dissemination alongside infrastructure. By providing a centralised hub of verified information, we empower the decision makers and innovators of a city to get that information to people in whatever ways work best for them.  

Information availability can’t solve traffic jams or late buses, but by engaging riders and keeping them constantly up to date, it can make transport accessible, reliable, and much more convenient for regular users and more appealing to those who might switch from their private cars. Providing information on service delivery, demand, and performance to cities and agencies provides the foundation for data-based decision making for the entire system. 

Could this be implemented in other regions?

Our platform is designed for emerging cities, so we’ve focused on ways to integrate formal and informal transport and systems with large numbers of decentralised operators. Given that, it can work anywhere in the world. 

Many cities in developing countries have major congestion issues and under-developed or non- existent public transport. What advice would you give to them? How do they begin to tackle these challenges?  

Every city has ways of getting around, although in emerging cities they’re often decentralised, private sector methods like minibus taxis that we would deem ‘informal.’ While we definitely support the initiatives to build traditional, formal public transport systems in these cities, these systems need to be integrated together. The majority of citizens in developing countries will continue to use informal transport to get around for the near future, and their need for information is the same. Cities should work with informal operators to get this information to people at the same time they are implementing infrastructural plans to provide more services. Information drives accountability, to riders and to the cities themselves, and should be a priority when working with existing transport services or creating new ones.