An open-source software tool created by a University of South Florida researcher is changing the way transit agencies around the world provide travel information by quickly identifying errors in real time.
The governments of France and California recently began using the GTFS (General Transit Feed Specification) real-time validation tool, allowing transit agencies to publish data in a standard format easily adopted by various trip planning applications. . Sean Barbeau, senior mobile software architect for research and development at USF’s Center for Urban Transportation Research (CUTR), created the GTFS validation tool.
The software enables transit agencies to provide more accurate information through mobile mapping apps, increasing efficiency and ridership.
“Instead, each small transit agency uses its own data to verify quality,” Barbeau explained. “Why don’t we just run it on everybody’s data, like a state or national government?”
Barbeau said data sharing improves the quality of hundreds of agencies at once and reduces economies of scale. The French government recently adopted the tool nationwide, although Barbeau said that to his knowledge, California is the only state to use the software universally.
Although he said the process is still early days, Barbeau hopes the US Department of Transportation will follow France’s lead. Barbeau and CUTR have had talks with the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT), he said, and he thinks the organization realizes the value of the tool.
“Maybe it’s something that could happen one day, absolutely,” Barbeau said. “If we could aggregate this nationally, I think the big question, like anything else, is who is paying for this.”
Barbeau explained that he started the first iteration of the GTFS real-time validator in 2013, before the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority (HART) and most other transit agencies provided apps to share information and bus timetables. He said research and studies have shown that providing real-time information to passengers is a cost-effective way to improve transit experiences and increase ridership.
Barbeau said researchers conducted an experiment in Tampa and found that passengers with access to real-time information thought they spent less time waiting on the bus.
“If you’ve already gone through the process, you’re just sitting there wondering when it’s going to show up if you don’t have the information,” he said. “With this information, we can remove some of that uncertainty.”
Through a partnership with HART, CUTR launched the One Bus Away app in 2013, Barbeau said. Although the program provided crucial information, he said researchers quickly realized that people lost faith in the system and ridership dropped if the data was incorrect. He added that researchers waited at bus stops and manually checked the accuracy of the app during these early stages.
Barbeau said manually verifying information through the data pipeline was time-consuming because the data was constantly changing, so the researchers started building software to automate the process. The CUTR team encountered the same issues in a similar partnership with the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA), so the team began working on a more standardized tool and process.
The team applied for a research grant in 2017, Barbeau said, to take the “initial software that we created and evolve it a bit into this broader validation tool with well-defined rules that check for specific errors.” .
“Then make it available on the internet so anyone can go and pick it up, use it, and run it on one of these standardized streams.”
Barbeau explained that GTFS formats data to move from a transit agency’s internal vehicle tracking systems to applications like Google or Apple Maps. He said the data format varied from agency to agency, which he called a nightmare for mobile mapping apps.
He said different entities around the world, including USF, came together and collectively agreed on how the agencies should format transit data, now called the GFTS standard.
“Most agencies, like HART, PSTA – pick an agency – they’re all sharing their real-time data in this GTFS format at this point,” Barbeau said. “And then any app can grab that data in that format and display it.”
While most transit agencies present data in GFTS format, the researchers hope that France and California’s universal adoption of the real-time validation tool will inspire others to follow suit. USF is partnering with MobilityData, a Canadian non-profit organization, to improve and standardize its use worldwide.
Barbeau relayed the need for the tool, as he said he had recently found more than 1,000 errors in a French transit data stream. He said the number of errors found in data feeds generally reflects the size and scale of a transit agency.
As public transit becomes more efficient, Barbeau said people are more likely to take the bus and encourage friends and family to do the same. The GFTS validator could also help boost tourism, he said, by providing accurate and reliable information to people new to an area.
Barbeau added that the open source nature of the tool promotes a community aspect and allows for increased coordination between different entities with the same goals. He said the openness led to the partnership with MobilityData, “which provides a really strong network of different people who operate on the tool.”
Part of the global network is the National Institute for Transportation and Communities, which, along with the Department of Transportation, funded the GFTS Realtime Validator prototype. Barbeau also noted that MobilityData was incubated by the Rocky Mountain Institute, which focuses on climate change and reducing carbon emissions.
“And one of their findings is that one of the best ways to do that is for more people to use public transportation,” Barbeau said. “And one of the most cost-effective ways to do that is to give people better information.”