Tracking the UK’s bus network

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Vehicle tracking has come a long way, with many operators now providing customers with phone apps so they can track the bus they intend to catch. But before this someone was already working away behind the scenes to develop a website that has become well known and respected. Richard Sharman talks to the person who created and runs bustimes.org

Technology has truly transformed the passenger experience of catching a coach or bus, this is mainly thanks to the development of ticket machine equipment that can now provide a vast amount of data to the operator. They in-turn have the option to share that information via an app or website with their customers.

In 2020 this technology reached its optimum level, with the introduction of passenger levels on board the bus, this additional level was always on the horizon to be introduced but the recent pandemic made it an immediate necessity to build passenger’s confidence back when travelling on a bus.
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[/wlm_nonmember] [wlm_ismember] Prior to operators bringing out their apps, someone was already putting open data to use. Josh Goodwin is the owner of bustimes.org, a website that has come into its own in the last two years. The website allows passengers to find out where their bus is,  if is on time or late, if it has USB ports, where the nearest bus stops are, operator contact details, current timetable and the route the service takes.

The website itself looks basic compared to many of the fancy apps, but it provides far more information. For those interested it also provides details of what livery that bus is in, options for people to submit an update form and what services that bus has worked today. In the last 5 months an unofficial fleet list for each operator has been introduced, this is generated by active vehicles in the fleet submitting data from ticket machines.

Q&A with bustimes.org owner and developer

Josh Goodwin was able to take part in a Q&A session during lockdown for CBW readers:

CBW: bustimes.org has become extremely popular with bus users and those in the industry for vehicle tracking and timetable information. How many years have you been working on this project and what gave you the initial idea?

Josh Goodwin: In 2015 whilst waiting to graduate from university I discovered the amazing “open data” published by the DfT and Traveline,  the national public transport gazetteer (NPTG), national public transport access nodes (NaPTAN), and Traveline national dataset (TNDS) and I wanted to see what I could build with it. So in a way, it was a product of boredom.

Initially, there was not even any times on the site, just lists of stops and routes which understandably annoyed some people given the misleading website name.

Over time, I have been able to make better use of the data, adding timetables, and eventually plotting the locations of vehicles on maps.

Since summer 2018 it has been my main job funded by advertising.

CBW: Are you a bus enthusiast, bus user, or are you just interested in bringing all this data together in one place?

Josh Goodwin: All of the above. Using the site “in anger” waiting for an infrequent bus in rural Norfolk, or trying to find my way around an unfamiliar city has been a handy way to identify areas for improvement.

I never set out to make a site for enthusiasts, but information they find might useful, e.g. which bus is working a particular journey, is just as useful to “ordinary” passengers, who can know what colour bus to look out for, and whether they will be able to plug their mobile phone into recharge.

CBW: How much time do you need to spend on keeping the website going each week, or is it at a point where it runs itself?

Josh Goodwin: I have tried to automate as much as possible, but there’s always something to fix or improve. Some have likened the process to gardening.

Checking the crowd-sourced information about vehicles (types, liveries, features etc) takes up some time, sometimes I almost wish every bus was painted the same colour!

CBW: How do you source all the data for the website?

Josh Goodwin: Vehicle locations come from a complicated mishmash of local authorities and operators. By this time next year, this data (for all bus services in England) should be available via the Bus Open Data Service, which will simplify matters and lessen the burden on famously underfunded local authorities.

CBW: In this last 12-months the number of operators covered has grown significantly, is this due to operators upgrading ticket machine equipment to transfer the data?

Josh Goodwin: More and more operators are upgrading ticket machines. I suspect the lure of contactless payments has something to do with this, but also preparing for the fare and vehicle location parts of the open data regulations in England (https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukdsi/2020/9780111196021).

CBW: How do you keep the timetable data up to date?

Josh Goodwin: From my point of view, it is an automatic process, the website regularly checks for updates to the TNDS, and updates the database as soon as new data is available. It all relies on the hard work of schedulers, local authorities, etc, keeping their data up to date.

Pioneering operators have started putting timetable data on the Bus Open Data Service (https://www.bus-data.dft.gov.uk/) in advance of the December deadline (for England) and I am starting to use that data as it tends to be more up-to-date, especially at the moment with timetables changing more frequently and at shorter notice.

CBW: Once you start looking in-depth into the website you realise that there is a multitude of information, what do you find is the most popular area used but visitors?

Josh Goodwin: I think the biggest thing is still timetables.

I have heard from users with visual impairments who are reliant on assistive technology like screenreaders, who find PDFs impossible to use, so I am particularly proud of the accessibility of the site.

CBW: Do you know how many people use the website daily?

Josh Goodwin: In January, about 100,000 on a normal day (although users are counted twice if they use both a phone and a laptop, for example). The current situation has seen that fall by about 75%.

CBW: Have you had any operator feedback yet?

Josh Goodwin: Yes. I have heard of drivers waiting to do a driver changeover using the site to track the bus they are about to drive, which is a user case I had never envisaged. I know some operators use it to keep tabs on their competitors’ performance.

CBW: What are your plans for bustimes.org going forward, are you looking to develop it into an app, could you work with operators etc?

Josh Goodwin: There are lots of great apps already. By only making a website I have carved out a niche. Lots of people discover the site by googling for specific information, and maybe don’t have time to install an app… but never say never.

Over the next year, I hope I’ll be adding some information about fares, and more comprehensive vehicle tracking for all bus services in England, thanks to the government’s Bus Open Data project.

I moved from bustimes.org.uk to bustimes.org a few years ago, with vague ambitions of international expansion.

CBW: Given the current pandemic situation and the social distancing measures implemented, Ticketer is currently working with the government to provide details on vehicle loadings so that customers know that there is space for them to board. Would this be something you would be able to easily incorporate into your site using the ticket machine data?

Josh Goodwin: I do not have any concrete plans, but I would certainly like to help in any way I can. I have been impressed by how quickly the industry has worked on this. I have had ideas about vehicle loadings data in the past, and necessity is the mother of invention.

CBW: Are you aware of how much bustimes.org has changed how bus enthusiasts undertake their hobby? For example, if you are looking to photograph a particular vehicle, you can now track that vehicle rather than waiting out in the cold for hours with the hope that it will turn up. Have you had much feedback in regards to this?

Josh Goodwin: Yes. That’s one way I have used the site flickr, it has been nice to see photos I have sort of, indirectly helped take in this way.

Ticket machines get moved between buses, so sometimes the vehicle information is wrong, which may have been responsible for some disappointments and wasted time.

Examples of information available:

 

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