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Holly Krambeck's blog

Open Data + Urban Transport = ?

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For fun, suppose you were a software developer, and you came up with a terrific idea to communicate public transit information. For example, imagine your city experiences frequent floods, and you have devised an automated system that sends SMS texts to passengers, advising them of alternative transit routes during emergencies.

How much revenue do you think you could earn for that software? How many people could you positively impact?

 

What if I told you that today, by taking advantage of one tiny revolution in open data, you could take those numbers and multiply them by 350, turning $100,000 into $35 million, or 1 million people into 350 million? Sounds pretty good, right? If you are in international development, sounds like a promotion…

The 10-Cent GPS

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We know that technology is not a panacea, that gadgetry and software are not always the right solutions for our transport problems. But how do we know – really know -- when technology is truly the wrong way to go – when, say, using an old-fashioned compass is genuinely better than a GPS?

Thanks to blogger Sebastiao Ferreira, writing for MIT’s CoLab Radio, I have learned about an intriguing phenomenon in Lima, where entrepreneur data collectors, named dateros, stand with clipboards along frequented informal microbus routes, collecting data on headways, passenger counts, and vehicle occupancy levels. The microbus drivers pay dateros about 10-cents per instant update, and they use the information to adjust their driving speed.  For example, if there is a full bus only a minute ahead of the driver’s vehicle, the driver will slow down, hoping to collect more passengers further down the route. In informal transit systems, where drivers’ incomes are directly tied to passenger counts, paying dateros is a good investment (Photo from MIT CoLab Radio).

If you think about it, use of dateros could be more efficient than traditional schedule or GPS-based dispatch, because the headways are dynamically and continuously updated to optimize the number of passengers transported at any given time of day.  According to Jeff Warren (a DIY cartography pioneer), the dateros have been praised as the “natural database, an ‘informal bank’ of transportation optimization data.”

Does this little-known practice call into question our traditional prescription for high-tech solutions to bus dispatch?

“They are sitting on a gold mine and don’t even know it….”

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The other day, my colleague Roger Gorham, a transport economist working in Africa, shared with me an interesting story. He was in Lagos, meeting with stakeholders about setting up public-private partnerships for transport initiatives. One meeting revealed that, in an effort to improve service, a private entity had invested in new taxis for Lagos and in each had installed a GPS unit. This little revelation may not seem interesting, but it was very exciting to Roger, who also learned that the company has amassed more than 3 years of GPS tracking data for these taxis (which, incidentally, troll the city like perfect probes, nearly 24 hours a day, 7 days a week) and that this data could be made available to him, if he thought he might make some use of it.

Now, if you are reading this blog, chances are that you realize that with this kind of data and a little analysis, we can quickly and easily reveal powerful insights about a city’s transport network – when and where congestion occurs, average traffic volumes, key traffic generators (from taxi pick-up point data), occurrence of accidents and traffic blockages in real time, and even the estimated effects of congestion and drive cycle on fuel efficiency.

As Roger said, “They are sitting on a gold mine and don’t even know it….”

Now that you’ve built it, why won’t they come?

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If the proven, certified technology is cheap, makes companies more profitable, and at the same time, more green, then why doesn’t every company use it?

 

This is the mystery that our team now faces in Guangdong Province, China, where we are leveraging a multi-million dollar grant from the Global Environment Facility to support the retrofitting of freight trucks with Smartway (and similarly) verified Green Freight technologies*. These technologies improve the fuel efficiency of trucks, and their costs are recovered through fuel savings – in some cases, in as little as six months.   So, the pervasive question – if they are so cost-effective and improve the competitiveness of businesses, why aren’t these technologies used…everywhere?

 

It is an interesting question, because its answer points us to the broader issue of  market barriers in developing countries. How do we identify these barriers, and what is that "spark" that sets market forces in motion? 

 

It’s a bridge! It’s a bus! But is it real?

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Since May, the Internet has been a-buzz with the “bridge bus”, a never-before-seen public transit contraption scheduled for a 186 km route pilot in Beijing later this year. The bus straddles existing roadway lanes, creating a moving tunnel-like effect for the vehicles underneath. The vehicle’s Shenzhen-based designers claim that the system can move up to 1,200 passengers at a time (300 per bus), without taking away from existing road space, while at the same time reducing fuel consumption (the bridge bus runs on electricity, partially supplied by solar panels), and at a lower cost than building a subway. A revolution!

I am a big fan of entrepreneurial innovation in transit. And when I see something truly innovative and different come out of one of the countries where we work, I get very excited! But there is something about this concept -- something that doesn’t seem quite right…

“What do you people have against pedestrians and bicycles?”

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It doesn’t happen very often. Thank goodness. But there are times, very rare  times, when in our work, we experience a kind of mid-life crisis, when some external event sparks the realization that we have been traveling down a decision-path for so long, we’ve lost sight of something very important – when we stop and say, how did we get here?

It happened last month -- in Weihai, China’s Shandong Province, where we are working with the municipal government on the development of the city’s first Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) lines.

Rise of the Chinese Ghost Town

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In Chenggong, there are more than a hundred-thousand new apartments with no occupants, lush tree-lined streets with no cars, enormous office buildings with no workers, and billboards advertising cold medicine and real estate services – with no one to see them.

As my colleagues and I wandered, on–foot, down the center of Chenggong’s empty 8-lane boulevards and dedicated bus lanes, never seeing a single person, we marveled about the fiscal and political conditions that would have to exist to create something like this.  

Carbon Expo versus Bonn

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I have recently returned from CarbonExpo in Cologne, along with most of the unprecedented 70-person Bank delegation we sent this year.  For the uninitiated, CarbonExpo is an annual, oh, call it a high-energy trade fair, where carbon finance project developers, financial institutions, auditors, policy makers, and international organizations meet to strike deals and innovate ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions

Data-Driven Governance?

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During a recent World Bank retreat, my colleagues and I  visited Baltimore, a city that has developed some interesting, low-cost, innovative strategies to improve governance and increase transparency in policymaking. These strategies could be applied in many of the developing cities where we work, and, I will admit,  stumbling across this initiative was akin to finding hidden treasure.

Cairo Cash for Clunkers

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Vehicle scrapping and recycling programs are not new. In fact, last year, The Economist put together a neat comparison of subsidies provided for vehicle scrapping programs across the world.  

What is new, is how the Egyptians have organized their own national scheme. Rather than place the onus mostly or entirely on a government agency to provide incentives for participation, the Egyptian scheme is – I dare say – a model of public-private partnership innovation.In the fall of 2008, Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif charged the Ministry of Finance with organizing vehicle scrapping scheme, initially targeted at taxis and other mass transport vehicles.

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