Public transport is one of the biggest challenges facing cities today – how can Big Data and the Internet of Things be leveraged to tackle the issues?

A recent study has been commissioned by the Department for Transport from consultants Ricardo Energy & Environment to seek a better understanding of the potential opportunities, challenges, enablers and business models to support Big Data applications in a Smart City context.

The study asserts that the transport sector is a vast generator of Big Data, with the potential to realise significant efficiencies, innovate new products and services, and ultimately create greater economic competitiveness and growth. However, it is made clear that the transport sector is lagging behind other sectors, such as retail and healthcare, in terms of its level of Big Data exploitation.

What is Big Data, a Smart City and the Internet of Things?

Big Data is a term used to describe extremely large and/or complex datasets and the analysis of such datasets to identify useful patterns or trends. In the transport sector, Big Data includes things such as bus and rail vehicle occupancy data, real time car parking data, local weather and air quality data, traffic speed and count data from roads, and real time infrastructure condition status.

Smart Cities are those which use digital technology to promote performance and wellbeing and to increase their ability to respond to local, national and global challenges. Barcelona, Copenhagen and Singapore are often cited as examples of Smart Cities.

The Internet of Things (IoT) refers to the integration of the physical world with the digital world, where objects interact and cooperate to provide improved information, enable better decision-making and reach common goals.

What are the potential benefits of Big Data for transportation?

Big Data has the potential to greatly benefit the transport sector in a variety of ways. The Department for Transport's study analyses various advantages – we briefly discuss a selection of these below.

  1. Improved knowledge. Big Data and the IoT can be used to ensure that customers are actively made aware of the most appropriate/efficient form of transport at any given time. Data Mill North's national public transport access nodes (NaPTAN) provide a unique identifier for every point of access to public transport in the UK, and are an example of the infrastructure available now for Big Data to be utilised with. Train operating companies are already using Big Data to process live seat availability data and indicate to passengers waiting on station platforms which carriages have the most seats available.
  2. Higher levels of customer service. In addition to the enhanced customer experience derived from improved knowledge, customer profiling could help to improve customer service. The processing and effective analysis of repeat complaints being made by the same customer could result in a single and more effective response. Smart Cities and Big Data can also improve customer service by providing innovative solutions which utilise smartphone technology to replace both machine and ticket.
  3. Increased planning and operational efficiency.Big Data can be used to assess where processes can be tightened up, errors eliminated and unnecessary spending reduced. Strukton Rail in the Netherlands is a working example of how Big Data is being successfully utilised to identify problems before they result in delays and reduce downtime for maintenance.
  4. Improved safety. Big Data and the IoT are beginning to be harnessed, in order to create active monitoring technology that can pinpoint faster, targeted improvements to safety and reliability on transport infrastructure. Signal faults, terrorism and cybercrime are cited as some of the biggest threats to the transport sector. Big Data can help control and reduce these risks by providing more co-ordinated intelligence such as smart CCTV.
  5. Better air quality. Big Data can be used to assess emission levels in different areas of a city – this data can be used in the future planning, design and development of cities and, in particular, their transport networks.Madrid currently uses such information to assist in the design of pollution control projects.
  6. Vast economic benefits. The more interconnected and accessible our transport networks are, the greater the passenger revenues will be for transport operators. Increased knowledge for customers will result in a more efficient use of transport networks – saving customers time and money. It has previously been estimated that the value of time saved resulting from the release of Transport for London's open data is c.£58m per year, from an annual spend of less than £1m. In addition, the market for purchasing/licensing Big Data itself, and other related services, will expand and therefore stimulate economic growth as a whole.

What are the next steps?

The study suggests that the next frontier of Big Data applications will comprise the fusion of different datasets within the transport sector. Combine this with wider urban datasets and collaboration among public, private and community organisations, and there should be the ability to create cities with predictive and, in the right areas, autonomous capabilities. The study stresses that the development of open architecture and innovation platforms are essential to meet this vision.

Open architectures are infrastructures designed to allow for the addition, upgrading and swapping of components in an open and accessible way. In cities there are multiple creators and users of data – businesses, citizens and local government, which all need to collaborate in an open architecture network in order to fully utilise Big Data.

Innovation platforms are open application programming interfaces, which can be created for public bodies and regulated industries to enable innovative sharing and the use of real-time data to inform Smart City strategies and innovative mobility solutions.

For the successful application of Big Data to be unlocked, open architectures and innovation platforms across cities must be used effectively, while preserving a competitive and attractive data economy ecosystem. Certain cities have begun the development of Big Data utilisation. Barcelona has installed digital bus stops that provide real-time updates on bus locations. Copenhagen has introduced a platform that promotes the transfer and integration of data between organisations and individuals. Leeds originally implemented Data Mill North (the platform that allows the publishing of open data). Other cities now need to look at how to follow suit.

What are the current challenges?

One of the key challenges facing the successful utilisation of Big Data is the need to identify and promote suitable commercial business models which benefit all parties.Currently, there is a perceived culture that it is not economically viable for businesses to invest in the development of open architectures and innovative platforms.

Importantly, from a legal perspective, a compounding factor is the fear that sharing data will breach privacy, security and competition laws. Specifically, uncertainty regarding the legal requirements and concern over reputational impacts and the potentially crippling fines regime of the legislation were highlighted by the study as being key issues for commercial organisations.

The study also poses the question as to whether smaller cities and towns would ever see the benefit of Big Data – would its development make the UK even more London-centric? A potential solution to this could be the merging of datasets in and around smaller cities and towns into larger, more attractive ones – a similar approach to the one taken by sub-national transport bodies such as Transport for the North.


Cities such as Barcelona, Copenhagen, Leeds and Madrid have demonstrated that harnessing Big Data and the IoT can derive tangible benefits for the transport sector. In order to overcome the inherent challenges, the Department for Transport's study proposes that collaboration must be encouraged between government, transport operators, infrastructure providers, telecoms and academia. By increasing awareness among organisations of the opportunities to exploit data that they routinely collect, as a society we can unlock the true potential of Big Data and the IoT in the transport sector and the benefits which they can bring.