"I think it could be the most powerful use of big data yet in terms of aiding local bus networks and customer service,” says Martijn Gilbert, Managing Director of Go North East. “That's a bold statement, but we are really excited about it."
He’s talking about the innovative When2Travel bus capacity prediction tool, which the Go-Ahead Group is now rolling out for its customers across the UK.
Along with social distancing, wearing face coverings, enhanced cleaning and hygiene, When2Travel can bolster confidence among bus users as they return to work and school. Powered by the CitySwift specialist bus data engine, it provides a dynamic colour-coded online timetable to help passengers plan safe, socially-distanced journeys. Our data engine will also help Go-Ahead’s bus companies plan future timetable changes based on emerging demand.
Martijn, who led the When2Travel project on the Go-Ahead side, already had a relationship with us. CitySwift were familiar to Go-Ahead through our participation in the group's innovation accelerator programme, the Billion Journey Project, and Gateshead-based Go North East had been trialling the use of our data analytics to aid service planning, improve reliability and optimise the use of resources. "We've seen their outputs before and we're pretty confident about the integrity and reliability of their thought train," says Martijn.
As the coronavirus crisis unfolded, there were conversations within Go-Ahead about what the group could do to help manage demand for travel, and how data could be used to help guide its bus operations through the recovery period. Martijn then spoke to us – and our response impressed him.
"What CitySwift have delivered is a more detailed and comprehensive solution than I had perhaps envisaged," he says. "The guys are really up for the challenge, and they could see how their data engine could be used in this slightly different way."
"What CitySwift have delivered is a more detailed and comprehensive solution than I had perhaps envisaged. The guys are really up for the challenge, and they could see how their data engine could be used in this slightly different way."
The real strength of When2Travel is as a pre-planning aid. Those who are thinking about returning to work or shopping or another activity can view a prediction of the likely bus passenger volumes. This information is not just offered for the journey, it is offered for each point-to-point within the journey as well. This is essential because the bus you board near home may well be empty, but what’s going to happen when it approaches the city centre?
The other great thing about When2Travel is that it is continually updated. The data that feeds into it is refreshed and the artificial intelligence that underpins the system is continually learning.
At the moment, fare revenue is being lost at a time when the industry needs it more than ever. A double decker bus that could normally take up to 75 people is currently limited to about 15 or 20 seats - but in many cases those seats are available.
"There is capacity on the local bus network at the moment," says Martijn. "A lot of buses are running around with a lot of empty seats.
"We are putting out messages to people to say 'avoid the peaks', but what is the 'new peak'? From what we have seen a lot of people are travelling far earlier, and that is a peak. We've also got the concessionary fare travel peak as well. And therefore I think we need to be better at communicating to people when these peak periods are, which is what When2Travel is trying to do."
"We need to be better at communicating to people when these peak periods are, which is what When2Travel is trying to do."
As well as influencing passengers to travel at quieter times, Martijn says that When2Travel will also provide Go-Ahead’s bus operations with insights on where pinch points exist so that extra capacity can be put in place.
"In this interim phase, it will help us get through it the best way we possibly can," he explains. "We do want people back on board public transport. We need to see a path towards full commercial recovery. I think that's quite a way off yet, but I think the industry has demonstrated during this crisis its ability to be very agile, move very quickly and to be trusted to do the right thing, in collaboration with local authorities and other partners. And, most importantly, it's done it very efficiently as well.
"That cost and efficiency and speed of response point I think is really, really important - and When2Travel just amplifies that."
So what does Martijn think about the potential for big data on the UK bus industry?
"We have only just started to scratch the surface of it,” he responds. “We are led a lot by previous experience, by our own local insight, by discussions with stakeholders, and that's all really, really important. But actually we are moving into uncharted territory and I think that data-driven decisions are going to be all the more important."
Martijn believes that the challenge for the industry so far has been having tools that give the right insights and allow users to really trust the data. CitySwift is now providing those tools, and Martijn finds their outputs visually powerful and easy to digest.
"If we can get this right, it will be an opportunity for the industry to really embrace the power of big data,” he concludes. “We've got to, because I don't think anybody is expecting customers to return in their normal numbers for some time. There will be changes and for us to find our way to the optimal solutions for both our customers and the business, we've got to be influenced by emerging demand. Something like this tool is going to really help us with that."
"If we can get this right, it will be an opportunity for the industry to really embrace the power of big data."