Life is a Mystery

9 April 2015

Open Government Data and the case of Wiener Linien

Those who know me know I have a special place in my heart for Vienna. For many years I visited my Grandmother there. I attended first grade at Volksschule Mannagettagasse in Grinzing. I brought my own children to Vienna many times to visit their Great-Grandmother. I love Vienna, and I especially love Wiener Linien, Vienna’s magnificent public transit system. So I was shocked to learn, as I prepared for another visit, that Wiener Linien is virtually invisible on today’s mobile devices. Digging into the problem revealed a fundamental misunderstanding, as I see it, in the meaning of “open data.” Wiener Linien has claimed to provide “open data” but in fact provides data that nearly nobody can properly use.

I want to use this post to record what I’ve learned and make a plea that Wiener Linien step up and actually provide the data the world really needs. As you see, my conclusion is that Wiener Linien should provide GTFS data. Why this is not being done is a long story, bear with me.

Politics and Transit

In 2007 and 2009 I visited Austria and I have distinct memories of using Google Maps to plan trips around Vienna. I found it vastly helpful to use Google Maps since the Wiener Linien website was less than simple at the time. That there was a time Wiener Linien was visible on Google Maps can also be seen on the Google Maps forum. In early 2010 people started to complain there that Vienna’s public transportation had disappeared from Google. A whole Google Transit Österreich group emerged on Facebook to try to find out what broke and how to fix it. It became a news story in Austria.

It seems that in 2010 Wiener Linien and ÖBB (the Austrian railway) decided to no longer share data with Google in the format that Google was able to use. They decided to work toward some more egalitarian open data feed that would serve all providers of transit information, not just Google.

At the time, the only standardized form of data for sharing transit timetables and routes was called the “Google Transit Feed Specification (GTFS).” When Google started incorporating transit routing into Google Maps in 2005, no other provider was trying to fill this niche. Google worked with the TriMet transit agency in Portland, which had developed the precursor to GTFS. Other agencies, including Vienna, eventually joined in. But some became shy of working so directly with one provider. Vienna became very shy, and pulled its data altogether in 2010.

Meanwhile, GTFS became the “General Transit Feed Specification” partly due to recognition on Google’s part that even they would be better off if other providers could use this data. While the GTFS specification is still hosted by Google, it is now used by many providers of transit data, not just by Google. And the response of public transit systems has been staggering. Hundreds of systems are now providing GTFS data, as documented at the GTFS Data Exchange.

In 2012 the lack was being noticed. Die Presse wrote about 500 cities having transit data averrable in Google Maps, but not Vienna. In Vienna, the ÖBB finally relented in 2013 and restored the GTFS feed for transit application providers. Yet this move also received criticism within Austria, one blogger lamenting the fact that ÖBB was only providing this information to Google and not as open data, and a spokesman for the Green Party complaining that this information was being made available exclusively to a mega-corporation and not openly.

This highlights the political line being drawn. There are those in Austria who feel that providing data in the format Google prefers, a format that has been adopted widely around the world, would be a political capitulation to a mega-corporation. Clearly, the Wiener Linien data is not being withheld for technical reasons, but for political reasons.

Technology and Transit

In fact, since 2010 Wiener Linien has done a remarkable job of inventing its own API to realtime and routing data. They have made a whole open data portal available with a terrific API and neat JSON responses. This is everything a web or mobile developer could want. Or is it?

I have signed up for access to this open data API and done some preliminary investigation. I was interested in seeing if I could use the Wiener Linien open data to produce the equivalent of a GTFS feed. I found the API clear and well designed, but I also found it utterly unique. It is like no other transit API, requiring a learning curve to figure out and wholly dependent on staff at Wiener Linien who could change the API or responses at any time.

I also learned that the API did not make schedule data available. While some schedule data is implicit in the routing service the API provides, the schedules themselves are not made available. This was confirmed for me in a tweet from Stefan Kriz, “Open-Data-Beauftragter” for Wiener Linien: “@efceleste @wienerlinien Fahrpläne bieten die WL nur via Routingschnittstelle an. Als Rohdaten gibt es diese nicht im open Data Portal.” In other words, while Wiener Linien makes transit schedules available to the public as PDF’s, they refuse to make this data available in the open data portal.

This means that it is impossible for me to create the equivalent of a GTFS feed. It certainly explains why despite Wiener Linien providing what it calls “open data,” Vienna stays invisible on transit applications of the web and mobile world.

There are a very few, Vienna-specific, mobile applications that provide some realtime information based on the API’s that Wiener Linien has provided. But the clear indication that Vienna’s data is unique and does not mix well with others is the fact that these apps all serve only Vienna. Vienna is not part of the world, it stands alone.

Mixing Politics and Technology

All this has made it much clearer to me that open data is about more than the data. Yes, Wiener Linien has made some data available openly. But this data is not in the format that most developers around the world have learned to use: GTFS. Because some in Austria still perceive GTFS as a “Google” format, they have missed that it is in fact now the most open and accessible format for developers of transit applications across the world. It is openly defined, and it serves hundreds of cities around the world. Paris, Munich, Prague all provide GTFS data.

While it is possible to provide GTFS data exclusively to Google, this is by no means required or desirable. GTFS data can be provided openly to the whole world, for all developers to use. In fact, this is the definition of open data: a shared format widely used around the world. Vienna is currently not providing this.

Furthermore, Wiener Linien is actively withholding the most fundamental data about its network that could be provided: schedules. Clearly Wiener Linien understands that this is fundemental public information, after all, it posts this to its own website in PDF form and includes these schedules on virtually every bus and tram stop throughout the city. Failing to provide an open data feed of this schedule information is an incredible disservice to Vienna.

If the Green Party and others who believe in open data in Austria truly mean what they say, then they should insist that Wiener Linien provide open schedule data immediately. If they understand the role of technology and care about their citizens and visiting tourists, then they should insist that this data be provided in GTFS format for all, not just for Google. These GTFS files could be posted on the existing open data portal for everyone in the world to use.

Until then, Vienna’s magnificent public transit system will remain invisible to the world.


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Eric Celeste / Saint Paul, Minnesota / 651.323.2009 /