If you are a public transportation company: How do you tell your prospective passengers that their travel plans may have to change?
Public transportation companies know a lot about their passengers’ travel patterns, but not as much as you would think – and, surprisingly, they know less now when ticket sales have been automated than they used to know before.
Let’s take a concrete company as an example: Ruter AS, the public transportation authority of Greater Oslo. Ruter is a publicly owned company that coordinates various suppliers of transportation services (bus, tram, train, some ferries) in the Oslo area. The company has been quite innovative in their use of apps, selling most of their tickets on the RuterBillett app, and having many of their customers plan their journey on the RuterReise app. The apps are very popular because they make it very easy both to figure out which bus or train to take, and to buy a ticket.
The company has a problem, though: While they know that someone bought a ticket on the ticketing app, they don’t know which particular bus, tram or other service the passenger took (a ticket typically gives you one hour of open travel on their services, no matter how many of them you use).
They could get some information from what people have been searching for, but the two apps are not linked, and they don’t know whether a passenger who searched for a particular route actually bought a ticket and did the journey – or not. There are many reasons for this lack of knowledge, but privacy issues – Norway has very strict laws on privacy – are important. Ruter does not want to track where its customers are travelling, at least not if it in any way involves identifying who a passenger actually is.
Not knowing where passengers are is a problem in many situations: It creates difficulties for dimensioning capacity, and it makes it difficult to communicate with passengers when something happens – such as a bus delay or cancellation.
Identifying travel patterns and communicating with passengers
The problem for Ruter is that they want to know where people are travelling (so they can figure out how many buses or trams they need to schedule), they ned to know who regularly takes certain journeys (so they know whom to send a message to if that route is not working) and they need to know who is in a certain area at a certain time (so they don’t send you a message about your bus being delayed if you are out of town, for instance). All of this is easy, except for one thing: Norway has very strict privacy laws – already quite similar to EU’s General Data Protection Regulation, which goes into effect in 2018 – and Ruter cares deeply about not being seen as a company that monitors where people travel.
In short, they need to know where you travel, but do not want to know who you are.
This is a seemingly impossible challenge, but Smarthelp Secure Infrastructure, in combination with Smart Decision Support, makes it possible. The communications platform creates an end-to-end encrypted communication channel between a central system and the smartphone. Using technology developed because we had to solve the problem of medical-level encrypted communication between emergency centers and individual users, Smarthelp has technology that allows someone to track specific information you allow access to – say, the fact that you are in a certain area, or that you regularly travel certain paths – without sharing other information, such as your name.
This would allow Ruter, when something happens, to send a message to people who a) regularly takes, say, bus route 85, and who b) is in an area where it is conceivable that they could take the bus, given their prior patterns, the time of day, and so on. For the individual passenger, this would mean that you only get pertinent messages – you don’t get messages about bus routes you don’t normally take (unless you actually get on the bus), and you don’t get messages when you are far enough from the bus that it is clear you are not going to take it anyway. In a world of information overload, this is extremely important – flood the user with many messages, and they do not read them.
The future of public transportation
A selective message and geolocation service, such as Smarthelp provides, is an evolutionary step, an optimization of the current way transportation is coordinated. In the long term (especially if we start to talk about seld-driving vehicles), the whole way we coordinate public transportation will change. As one Ruter employee told me: A public transportation company is “someone who takes you from a place you are not to a place you don’t want to go.”
The next step in public transportation is that the users tells the company not just that they want to get on the bus, but also where they want to go. I have been told that in an experiment, Telenor found that, one sunny summer afternoon, fully half of their employees (located at Fornebu outside Oslo) planned to go to Huk, a public beach on Bygdøy. The distance from Telenor’s headquarters at Fornebu is 10 minutes by car, but takes more than 30 minutes by public transportation, involving two bus routes. If Ruter had known about these travel plans, though, it could have just rolled up some buses and driven the employees directly, vastly improving the service – and avoiding clogging up the regular buses to Bygdøy.
And that is the future of public transportation: Instead of planning where you will go in terms of geography, you will tell the public transportation company where you want to go, and they will get you there. With self-driving cars, they will be able to tell you when you will be at your destination – but, perhaps, not willing to tell you the actual route. As a passenger, you probably will not care – after all, what matters to you is when you arrive, not by which route.
That would, in effect, mean that we have transitioned public transportation from line switching to packet switching, effectively turning the bus into the Internet. But that is for the future.
In the meantime, there is Smarthelp.
(I am on the board of Råd AS, a company that has developed the platform SmartHelp for Norwegian emergency services, allowing shared situational awareness, communication and privacy. The company is now seeking customers and collaborators outside this market.)
Smarthelp is a platform technology consisting of, at present, three elements: Smarthelp Rescue, an app for iPhone and Android that allows users to transmit their position to an emergency service; Smarthelp Decision Support, a decision support system which allows an operator to locate and communicate with users (both with the app and without), and Smarthelp Secure Infrastructure, a granularly encrypted communications platform for secure, private communication. If you want more information, please contact me or Fredrik Øvergård, CEO of SmartHelp.