Understanding the wider picture of open standards
Simon Beasley, Transport Network Manager at Reading Borough Council in the UK, explores a range of activities to facilitate the exchange and sharing of knowledge and experience on how to develop, implement and maintain open specifications and standards for ITS and traffic management.
Intelligent transport systems – or ITS – are widely implemented in cities and regions to support a variety of policies: to manage traffic and to influence travel behaviour, through systems such as real-time travel information, bus priority at traffic lights and smartcard ticketing. They are complex systems and the supply market is diverse and rapidly developing. As a result, ITS have largely been implemented in an un-coordinated and piecemeal way. Compounding the problem is the multitude of local agencies procuring ITS, the absence of a common set of open ITS standards and specifications, and the prevalence of closed, proprietary systems.
To tackle this situation, interoperability frameworks began to emerge in the late-1990s. Two of the most successful have been UTMC in the UK and OCIT/OTS in the German-speaking part of Europe – both of which offer open specifications and standards (OSS) for urban ITS and these are now widely adopted by local authorities and suppliers throughout their native territories, and increasingly beyond.
Procuring a system designed according to OSS means that a transport authority is no longer tied to one particular vendor. There is evidence that adopting OSS can reduce customer costs, promote innovation and generate economic benefits (new companies entering the market place). Surprisingly this can also be beneficial to systems companies which no longer have to develop everything from scratch, and no longer have to support and maintain many customer-specific implementations.
At a Polis1 meeting in 2010, Polis members (city and regional authorities) from around Europe expressed interest in learning more about OSS, and particularly how to go about setting up a framework like UTMC or OCIT/OTS. This expression of interest led to the European co-funded project POSSE2, which brought the existing frameworks together with a number of cities in Europe interested in learning more about the benefits of open specifications and standards. These cities were Burgos (Spain), Pisa and La Spezia (Italy), Klaipeda (Lithuania), NPRA/Trondheim (Norway) and CDV/Brno (Czech Republic). Reading Borough Council (UK) coordinated the project, and Polis led European-level dissemination and communication activities.
Open specifications in real cities
The origins of both UTMC and OCIT/OTS lie in traffic management, focusing on urban traffic control systems and traffic signal controllers. However, from the outset it became clear that this was too narrow a scope, and UTMC in particular now offers open specifications for a wide variety of relevant systems such as variable message signs (VMS), air quality monitoring systems, car park guidance, barriers, CCTV, and automated number plate recognition (ANPR).
Actual implementations are even more diverse. For instance, Reading’s UTMC system acts as a kind of integrated mobility data hub: it draws in public transport information (allowing services like bus priority at traffic lights), collates information on neighbouring authorities’ networks, and acts as a source for publication of both traveller services (such as journey planning and real-time information) and ‘open data’ publications to these parties.
The philosophy of OSS has been crucial in this development, and Reading is not alone. Under POSSE, a set of case studies was collected from both UTMC and OCIT/OTS regions; these case studies formed a crucial baseline to explore with POSSE partner cities the real potential of using OSS in practical contexts – in particular, the fact that the same OSS framework can benefit cities of very different shapes and sizes. The POSSE case studies are freely available publicly via the POSSE website2. From this basis, each of the POSSE partner cities was able to explore the potential for OSS in its own environment. The first step was to consider the very different local ITS contexts, and analyse the optimal next steps – and then to establish how OSS might help deliver these steps better.
Trondheim, for instance, is a leading site in the development of cooperative ITS, and was keen to establish how to standardise the specification of a roadside C-ITS station for services such as tolling and bus priority. Klaipeda had much less existing ITS, and wanted to improve coordination of its standalone traffic signals to deliver green waves – again, with public transport prioritised.
The Spanish and Italian partners took a very different perspective. Their political priorities were to deliver open data platforms: in Spain, through a broad-based (not just transport) initiative coordinated by the national government (under the red.es programme), and in Italy through local systems but with regional interest.
Pisamo SpA, an in-house company of the Pisa municipality, is developing an integrated data platform for the entire city’s ITS and GIS system. Open data specifications and communication protocols have been defined and adopted to ensure that data coming from the city’s systems, irrespective of supplier, can feed into the platform without any additional cost for the administration. In the first instance, the integrated data platform will enable the city to monitor and manage urban mobility in a more effective way. In the medium-term, Pisa plans to implement an incentive system to use sustainable transport modes, called Greenhaviour. Number plate recognition cameras, connected to the data platform, will be installed at the six P&R sites around the city to detect those commuters leaving their car and travelling onwards by high-frequency bus.
In Spain, the city of Burgos developed an open data strategy for the city, as well as preparing a national guide for open data and ITS standardisation. The city’s open data strategy covers all systems; there is a particular focus on public transport, since this is the first type of data to be opened. The national guide takes stock of the open data activities already underway in Spain, which range from cities already publishing via their own open data portals, to cities not yet engaged at all in publishing data. The guide identifies recommended data formats, and proposes mechanisms to interconnect existing open data initiatives in order to create a common platform.
Even Reading was able, through the course of POSSE, to develop plans for extending its UTMC infrastructure. As well as developing its open data platform, it also supported the creation of new UTMC specifications for travel monitoring systems based on tracking Bluetooth or Wi-Fi signals from travellers’ mobile devices (with due regard to data protection and privacy issues).
The future of open specifications
POSSE has taken only a few small steps towards an open European ITS world: it has focused on two proven – but independent – national frameworks, half a dozen individual European cities and a relatively limited set of ITS functions. There is a lot more than can be done.
Clearly one angle is to reach more holistically across Europe (and potentially beyond). The work of POSSE has been warmly received by the European Commission, and POSSE (and its core partners) is cited specifically in the draft Urban ITS Standards Mandate to the European standards organisation CEN. A second angle is to continue to build strong links at working level, between the OSS frameworks and the cities and systems suppliers they exist to support. To be technically and commercially practical, open standards need to build on real world systems design experience. International standards are great to have but they can be too all-encompassing for immediate use.
Finally, we still need to ensure that the whole travel and transport sector is coordinated into a coherent OSS framework environment. Today, there remains a wide gulf between public transport standards like SIRI and road network standards like DATEX; areas like smartcards, C-ITS and broadcast travel information are evolving yet other, quite independent, OSS. While this is understandable from the historical context in which ITS have developed, these divisions are a brake on how quickly, cheaply and effectively cities can develop true intelligent mobility solutions.
This challenge is being addressed at several levels. At the policy level, both the European Commission and its member states are increasingly recognising this system’s unity as a fundamental barrier, and are using the various available instruments to address it: funding through the Connecting Europe Facility, research through Horizon 2020, a technical framework through the Urban ITS Standards Mandate to CEN, and knowledge exchange through Interreg Europe. At a local level, forward-thinking cities are breaking down organisational barriers, creating and supporting systems skills, and engaging with the public on holistic transport requirements. And in industry, companies both large and small are looking beyond their traditional product offerings to create propositions that enable real transport integration.
It benefits all of us to do our best to narrow this gulf, using opportunities given by standardised modern technology. Reading, and its core POSSE partners UTMC, OCA and Polis, are exploring our potential role in this, and working closely with the EC and industry to ensure that it is not just a solution on paper. Public finances may be challenged at the moment, but we would strongly encourage every other European city to play its part too.
Simon Beasley has over 27 years of experience working in both the public and private sector delivering Intelligent Transport Systems (ITS) for cities and regions in the UK. Simon leads on the continued development of Universal Traffic Management and Control (UTMC) and open data for Reading, UK. His role as Transport Network Manager at Reading Borough Council includes responsibilities for daily traffic management whilst developing strategies for longer-term road management solutions within the context of EU and UK legislation. Reading continues to be at the forefront of ITS development within the UK where Simon has been involved in the delivery of various UK and EC-funded transport related projects. Simon was one of 25 experts who formed the Urban ITS Expert Group working for the European Commission on the ITS Action Plan. Simon has also provided expert evidence to the UK government Transport Select Committee on urban traffic management. Simon is also the current Chair of the UTMC Development Group.