An open-source software tool created by a University of South Florida researcher is changing how the world’s transit agencies provide travel information by quickly identifying errors in real-time.
The governments of France and California recently began utilizing the General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS) Realtime validation tool, enabling transit agencies to publish data in a standard format easily adopted by various travel planning applications. Sean Barbeau, principal mobile software architect for research and development at the USF Center for Urban Transportation Research (CUTR), created the GTFS validation tool.
The software allows transit agencies to provide more accurate information through mobile mapping applications, which increases efficiency and ridership.
“Instead of every single tiny transit agency running against their own data to check the quality,” explained Barbeau. “Why don’t we just run it against everybody’s data, as like a state or national government?”
Barbeau said sharing the data improves the quality of hundreds of agencies in one shot and reduces the economies of scale. France’s government recently adopted the tool nationwide, although Barbeau said that to his knowledge, California is the only state to universally utilize the software.
While he said it is still early in the process, Barbeau hopes that the U.S. Department of Transportation follows France’s lead. Barbeau and CUTR have held talks with the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT), he said, and he believes the organization realizes the tool’s value.
“Maybe that’s something that could happen someday, absolutely,” said Barbeau. “If we could aggregate this up to the national scale, I think the big question, like anything else, becomes who pays for it.”
Barbeau explained he started on the earliest iteration of the GTFS Realtime Validator in 2013, before the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority (HART) and most other transit agencies provided apps to share bus information and schedules. He said research and studies showed that providing real-time information to passengers was a cost-effective way to improve transit experiences and increase ridership.
Barbeau said researchers conducted an experiment in Tampa and found that riders with access to real-time information thought they were spending less time waiting on the bus.
“If you’ve ever been 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 the information, we can remove some of that uncertainty.”
Through a partnership with HART, CUTR launched the One Bus Away app in 2013, said Barbeau. While the program provided crucial information, he said researchers quickly realized that people lost confidence in the system and ridership decreased if the data was incorrect. He added that researchers waited at bus stops and manually checked the app’s accuracy through those early stages.
Barbeau said that manually checking information through the data pipeline was time-consuming as the data constantly changes, so researchers began creating software to automate the process. The CUTR team encountered the same problems 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, said Barbeau, to take the “initial homegrown software that we created and mature it a little bit to this larger validation tool with well-defined rules that check for specific errors.”
“Then make it available on the internet so anyone can go and grab it and use it and run it against any one of these standardized feeds.”
Barbeau explained that the GTFS formats data to transition from a transit agency’s internal vehicle tracking systems to apps like Google or Apple Maps. He said the data format varied between every agency, which he called a nightmare for mobile mapping applications.
He said different entities from around the world, including USF, came together and collectively agreed on how agencies should format transit data, now called the GFTS standard.
“Most agencies, like HART, PSTA – pick an agency – they all share their real-time data in this GTFS format at this point,” said Barbeau. “And then any application can pick up that data in that format and display that.”
While most transit agencies present data in GFTS format, researchers hope France and California’s universal adoption of the real-time validator tool will spur others to follow suit. USF is partnering with Canadian-based non-profit MobilityData to enhance and standardize its use worldwide.
Barbeau relayed the need for the tool, as he said it recently found over 1,000 errors in a French transit data feed. He said the number of errors found in data feeds typically reflects the size and scale of a transit agency.
As 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 fosters a community aspect and allows for increased coordination among different entities with the same goals. He said that openness led to the partnership with MobilityData, “which provides a really solid network of different people that operate on the tool.”
Part of the overall network is the National Institute for Transportation and Communities, which, along with the Department of Transportation, provided funding for the GFTS Realtime Validator prototype. Barbeau also noted that MobilityData was incubated through the Rocky Mountain Institute, which focuses on climate change and reducing carbon emissions.
“And one of their conclusions is one of the best ways to do that is for more people to ride mass transit,” said Barbeau. “And one of the most cost-effective ways to do that is to provide people with better information.”