You wait ages for a bus and then…

A Greenline Bus

So the saying goes, you wait ages for a bus and then an Open Data project comes along ..

I was asked to speak at the launch event of the UK Dept. of Transport Bus Open Data Digital Services (BODDS) yesterday which aims to provide open data for England complex network of buses outside of London.

As a Londoner I recognise that I am very fortunate having up to the minute information about Transport of London (TFL) Buses available to me on my mobile phone using many popular apps including of course Google Maps. TFL after a lot of pressure developed an API to their data feeds in 2015, and I can now sit of my sofa at home and make sure the express bus to the airport is on time and leave just in time to make it to my local stop.

For most of the country this is not the case, the fragmented nature of bus operations in the rest of England even in large cities made the creation and access to open data about buses overly complex.

The initiative launched yesterday is very important because in providers not only a national platform to share bus information but also tools to allow operators to upload data about their operations including initially schedules but also in due course ticketing and the real time location of individual buses.

Leveling up ?

The opportunity here of course is to “level up” access to information and this is an important step, although I would perhaps have preferred the service to make use of more developer friendly formats GTFS rather than those better suited to Operators, TransXChange and NeTEx. There is a difference between data used in running a Bus network and the information you might wish to publish for journey planning and downstream use.

The role of the developer community will be vital, of course the major information platform companies will in due course consume the data and make it available to their customers but there is a opportunity for a ecosystem of smaller developers to build solutions in the form of apps that link public transport to other local services in a much more integrated way.
Imagine booking a appointment to your local hospital with the appropriate bus journey information to get you from your home to the hospital included along with a ticket delivered to your app.

There is a great deal of talk about Mobility as a Service (Maas) linking different modes of transport together to provide a seamless experience for passengers, convenience is all important and if as the Government hopes people will make fewer private car journeys , alternative solutions need to be as slick as hiring an Uber.

The Ethics of Location Sharing..

I listened to the latest podcast in the series produced by The Australian newspaper over the weekend, all are highly recommended but The Lighthouse was of particular interest.

It documents the tragic disappearance of a Belgian Backpacker last May in Bryon Bay a seaside town which is both a popular tourist destination and upmarket residential neighbourhood .

Having spent a few hours at a nightclub Theo Hayez disappeared into the night and has remained missing.

Never Lost ?

As you might expect of any backpacker in 2019 Theo was an avid user of his smartphone, and a key element of the podcasts narrative is an explanation of how his family was able to obtain access to his location history and what information this provided to the investigators of his disappearance both professional and amateur alike.

There is a lot of detail and colourful characters involved and I highly recommend taking the time to listen.

Instead of limited closed circuit television and eyewitness sightings investigators had a minute by minute trace of his movements from leaving the Cheeky Monkey’s Nightclub proceeding across town, through an area of bush before arriving at Tallow Beach where for an unexplained reason location services on his phone was switched off.

A final ping from his phone on a nearby cell site at Cape Byron in the early hours of the following morning was the last communication made from the device.

In the podcast and in the press there was criticism that the location information created by Theo’s phone was not made available earlier in the investigation, actually his family had in effect hacked into his account to obtain his location history by taking over his account using a backup email address.

Under what circumstances would it be appropriate to share someones location to a third party?

This raises an interesting ethical point, under what circumstances would it be appropriate to share someones location to a third party?

If that third party is the emergency services is the question ethically any different?

For very good reasons your location data is perceived as the very sensitive personal information and it’s collection and storage is strictly managed.

There are legal mechanisms in most jurisdictions for this type of information to be obtained by the Police for example, and the New South Wales Police appeared to be followed these guidelines but they do take a considerable time.

Theo was an adult and if he had even thought about it, perhaps would not have wanted his parents tracking his location while enjoying his holiday in Australia ?

Break the Glass protocol

Perhaps what is needed in a protocol for emergency location sharing, in limited emergency circumstances, location information could be shared with law enforcement agencies – formally this could be something mobile phone owners could opt in to using another switch in your system settings… to be clear no such system exists at present.

Of course it is also difficult to identify the circumstances that would be appropriate… there may be occasions when anyone might just want to “go off the grid” and indeed how might such a protocol be initiated ?

Informally of course we can make our own individual arrangements, most common smartphones today have a built in mechanism to share your location with chosen friends and family but usage on such systems is limited, as for many people they are just too creepy!

Another approach might be to share your login details with someone you trust for use in an emergency – only open this sealed envelope if something bad has happened ?

There are no simple answers, and of course the outcomes for Theo and for others who go missing every day might not be any different if timely location data was made available, however we should I think discuss the options ?

What do you think ?

GPS2K? GPS Week Rollover April 6th 2019

Does not quite have the same significance as 31 December 1999, but I’m sure someone in the mainstream press will soon draw the parallels with Y2K with stories of Airliners getting lost or Trading systems failing due to timing errors, April 6th 2019 is the date when GPS systems reset !

Actually for the second time the week code broadcast as part of the GPS signal is resetting back to zero.

The GPS system uses 10 bits to store the GPS Week Numbers starting from 6th January 1980, so every 1,024 weeks (approximately every 20 years), the GPS Week Number rolls over from Week 1,023 to Week 0, this is known as a GPS Week Number Rollover. This has already occured on August 21, 1999 but that was before the explosion in the use of GPS is smartphones, drones, buses etc.

There are efforts happening across industry to make sure that disruption is minimised, but there may be issues with older GPS receivers and smartphones .

With modern connected devices firmware updates can be applied without to much effort, I remember because I’m had one Garmin and Magellan sending out RS-232 cables and CD-ROMS to update their receivers in 1999 !

In summary look out for firmware updates and “Don’t Panic !”

Never have so many people understood so little about so much…

What inspired you as a child ?

A child today hopefully seeing the exploits of Elon Musk and Space-X launching and recovering rockets with showmanship seldom demonstrated by serious rocket scientists may have their interest  sparked in science and technology?

Personally my love of technology came yes from rocket science, but also crucially from growing up during a golden age of science broadcasting in the 1970’s when well informed specialist correspondents were on our TV screens it seemed every day.
Reginald Turnill, Patrick Moore and Raymond Baxter had both huge experience and knowledge in the fields of aviation and astronautics but were also great story tellers explaining often complex issues without the dumbing down so common today.

Reg Turnhill

Raymond Baxter in the backseat of the Harrier piloted by the great John Farley.

For me however the greatest of this generations was James Burke. Watch here his truly breathtaking live commentary of the Apollo 13  re-entry – a masterclass in explaining what is happening to the viewer during an incredibility tense few minutes.

I was too young to really remember Apollo 13 however in 1978 James Burke wrote and presented his seminal series Connections to try and explain how technology had come to play such an important part in society, in the first episode of the series he paraphrased Churchill to make the point as relevant today as it was then…

Never have so many people understood so little about so much…

I loved this series, Burke does a masterful job linking technological developments over 10,000 years to explain the modern world – imagine my joy on finding that the series had be re-released last year and is available on Amazon.

Let me show you why I am so gushing in my praise of James Burke…

Watch below perhaps the greatest “piece to camera” every filmed from Episode 8 of the series, here James Burke explains the connection between the invention of the thermos flask and landing on the moon.

Make sure you watch to the very end !

Eat your heart out Brian Cox !