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How Open Data Access Will Revolutionize Istanbul's Public Transit Systems

This article is also available in Turkish.

Istanbul, Turkey is a city with an increasing car-culture, with 600 new vehicles added to the road every day. As the population of Istanbul increases, and attaining a single-occupancy vehicle becomes easier, more people are turning to this mode. This causes increasing traffic congestion and hour-long commutes (Traffic jams during peak hours totaled roughly 1,100 kilometers -- a fourth of the city's 4,809 km of main roads in 2011), lower quality of life, and lower human and environmental health through inactivity and pollution for Istanbul's approximate 13.9-million population.

Traffic Congestion while heading to the Bosphorus Bridge in Istanbul, Turkey

While there are a variety of public transportation mode options (bus, tram, metro, ferries, funicular, minibuses and more), finding the easiest and most time-efficient route can be daunting; causing more people to get into cars than public transit. As Istanbul's public transportation infrastructure increases, Istanbulites need an easy way to access route information in order to demonstrate how effortless and efficient public transit can be – a main culprit for Istanbul's increasing car use. If individuals knew the ease at which they could move around the city, without their cars, they would find public transportation the optimal means of transport (As an avid public transit user, I can attest to this). Additionally, Istanbul is known as a tourist destination. With over 9.5 million visitors in 2012, Istanbul needs an accessible means for tourists to travel – without the use of a vehicle. With most public transportation information being available by individual transportation providers, not a multi-modal system, in addition to language barriers, tourists often perceive Istanbul transit as inaccessible.

In order to encourage public transit use there is the need for an accessible and easy-to-use multi-modal public transportation trip-planner. Istanbul's public transit network is currently operated by a handful of operators, specifically IETT (?stanbul Elektrik Tramvay ve Tünel), Ula??m A.?., Otobüs A.?., ?DO, and Sehir Hatlari, not to mention private operators such as dolmuses and minibuses. Istanbul's complex network of buses, tramways, metros, ferries, funiculars and private operators are not linked, and this isn't metaphorically. Literally, if you were to search for an Istanbul public transit trip-planner, for the most part, you would be at a loss or come across a few that are not especially user-friendly or reliable.

The reason behind these trip planner's unreliability is the access to the transit operator's data. In Istanbul, like many other cities that don't offer open data, transit data is often gathered by scraping data from the operator's computer server or from gathering publicly displayed information on websites and piecing it together. Leyla Arsan, CEO of Tages, believes that because of "law 4736, which outlines information, products and services created by the public as commercial property, that open data has never been thought of - and that transportation data falls under the commercialization of information. [In fact], not even the municipality can access data from IETT for free, it must be bought." Therefore, for mobile developers to access transportation information for developing applications that would enrich and better transportation and coordination, the data would have to be purchased. This offers only a small piece of the entire picture of Istanbul's complex transit system and its open data dilemma. Because Istanbul's transit providers do not provide open data we are unable to access important information such as real-time bus data, but must manage with the schedule data which is accessible, but unreliable (anyone who lives or has visited Istanbul knows how unreliable that schedule is due to traffic). Additionally, pulling, or scraping data from, for example, IETT's website only provides more complications because these sources provide incomplete, inaccurate or no data at times - refreshing every two minutes. These inconsistencies in data prove that until open data is revealed by Istanbul's transit operators, or they collaborate to create a multi-modal trip planner, the current system provides little incentive for getting out of vehicles and onto public transit.  

Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) line between Topkapi and Zincirlikuyu in Istanbul, Turkey

As users of public transit, transportation operator data should provide answers to questions such as: vehicle location for all modes of transit, route, destination, arrival time predictions, service bulletins in case there are delays or rescheduling, a stop list for routes that are not running, the last bus of the day, and a geo-position route path that shows where you are and where you're heading - all in real-time. These robust answers will steer the way for increasing clarity for how to use Istanbul's complex public transit system; in turn, increasing public transit use.      

This is a call to action for the public transit operators of Istanbul, those who, by not working together to create an accessible system, are indirectly encouraging 600 more vehicles to be added to the road each day - likewise decreasing future ridership (that doesn't make sense). Please open your data to us so that we can innovate, create solutions to our transportation problems, and construct a multi-modal trip-planner that will increase ridership & quality of life, while decreasing traffic and environmental degradation. "Open data is data that can be freely used, reused and distributed by anyone - subject only, at most, to the requirement to attribute and share." It does not mean sharing confidential data.

Please revolutionize the way Istanbulites use public transit - open your data.

Do you utilize a trip planner for your public transportation trips? How has your experience been? Is the data that runs it accessed from an open data source?

Credits: Images and data linked to sources.