Transport for London (TfL), the integrated transport organisation responsible for the United Kingdom’s capital city, wanted to give its customers more real-time data about journey options. By encouraging developers to use TfL data to create new applications for commuters, the transport operator hopes to relieve congestion and encourage more people to use options such as bicycle hire. TfL worked with Microsoft Services to create a real-time data feed for its TrackerNet website for trains in just six weeks using Windows Azure. This specialist TfL website that previously had 1,000 hits a day has now reached approximately 2.3 million, while TfL has saved the millions of pounds it would have spent building its own IT infrastructure. The innovative solution is helping to reinforce the organisation’s reputation for offering open data to developers, in line with government policy.Situation
Transport for London (TfL) reports to the Mayor of London for transport operations in the United Kingdom’s capital city, including London Underground, buses, the road network, and bicycle hire. The TfL transport network is complex, with more than 12 million journeys a day undertaken within Greater London.
During bad weather or major events, the transport infrastructure can become congested. Giles Bailey, Head of Group Marketing Strategy and Integration at Transport for London, says: “Our customers lead busy lives, so they need to know what routes are crowded or running slowly in order to plan alternative routes. Travelling in London is all about choice—whether that’s hiring a bicycle, getting on a bus, or using London Underground or National Rail. It’s important that customers understand what the options are and choose what’s most appropriate for them.”
Like most transport operators, TfL collects a daily data bank about how its system is functioning in terms of operations, customer movements, and infrastructure across the capital city. Bailey says: “This data is critical for how we run our business, but potentially very useful for broader customer knowledge of how to get around the city. We want to make this data more widely available, which fits with government policy on open data and also the strategy of the Mayor of London and the Greater London Assembly.”
As a first step, TfL wanted to harness the data-rich London Underground TrackerNet system, which provides real-time information about train movements and makes it available to partners, other organisations, and the application developer community. Bailey says: “Our vision was for developers to access our data and come up with new and innovative ways of offering transport information to the travelling public. This would complement the services TfL already gives to customers through its principal website.”
TfL is aware of the widespread use of smartphones by its customers. Michael Gilbert, Chief Technology Officer, Transport for London, says: “Portable and mobile devices in people’s hands are a great way to help customers benefit from our data. Our challenge is to get information to people in a way that helps them make their journeys better, faster, and less stressful.”
For this to happen, TfL initially tried to develop a suitable platform in-house for the London Underground TrackerNet website. It soon concluded that the most cost-effective path would be to collaborate with a major IT vendor experienced in cloud-based solutions. Bailey says: “We were looking for a partner that understood our key business challenge in terms of the complexity, richness, and real-time nature of our data—and making this accessible to the public in London.”
TfL invited Microsoft Services to take over its open data distribution challenge, starting with the London Underground TrackerNet system, which by then was attracting only around 1,000 hits a day. In just six weeks, Microsoft Services built a new real-time data TrackerNet feed using Windows Azure, the Microsoft operating system for the cloud.
Gilbert says: “Microsoft Services was able to come in immediately. Not only is Microsoft Services the master of its own technology, which we would expect, but its consultants understood what our problems were quickly and reacted rapidly.”
Microsoft Services worked with TfL and the developer community to deliver open data that people can access through their mobile devices—a move that also fits in with government policy on open information. With its TrackerNet solution, a commuter sends a travel query to the application programming interface (API) hosted on Windows Azure. The API responds rapidly with the data from the cache, which is frequently updated with live information received from the London Underground network. The data is also replicated in the Microsoft SQL Azure database. TrackerNet uses Windows Azure features to separate the API from the live information processing, resulting in high scalability for the application and rapid response times for end users.
Gilbert says: “By exposing the raw data through Windows Azure, we’re helping the developer community to take it away and decide for themselves how best to display it. Windows Azure is a simple platform for which to program, and, being cloud-based, it’s extremely scalable.”
TfL was impressed by the ability of Microsoft Services to solve challenges that no one at TfL had fully envisaged. Gilbert says: “These included authentication and security problems that we had an idea about, but didn’t know how to approach. Microsoft Services addressed these challenges in a highly interactive way.”Benefits
The web-based London Underground TrackerNet system has gone from receiving 1,000 hits a day to 2.3 million since using Windows Azure. This is separate from the principal TfL website, which routinely handles 20 million hits a day. Even with bad weather and major events in London, Windows Azure scales to meet the spikes in demand without increasing the strain on the TfL server. TfL has found the cloud-based TrackerNet feed website to be highly cost effective, with the operator saving potentially millions of pounds that it would have spent developing its IT infrastructure. Gilbert says: “The cost to the taxpayer of the Windows Azure solution is virtually nothing, but the benefit to the travelling public is enormous.”
TrackerNet Website Hits Rise to 2.3 Million a Day with Windows Azure
Prior to moving to the cloud, the TfL London Underground TrackerNet system was offering small feeds to partners such as the BBC, with around 1,000 hits a day. Gilbert says: “By the time Microsoft Services had set up the new system—in a matter of about six weeks—we were talking about the TrackerNet website handling 2.3 million hits a day. It has been growing every day, and with smartphones becoming more popular, we see no end to that.”
Integrated Data Helps Travellers Plan Journeys More Effectively
TfL is supporting the Mayor of London’s vision to make London the world’s most digitally accessible city by offering new customer-centric services over the web. Gilbert says: “We’re not in the business of making money. We’re here to help passengers get from point A to point B in London.”
An example of how travellers will benefit is the Mayor of London’s bicycle rental scheme. Gilbert says: “TfL has the information about whether a bicycle is available for hire at a particular location, and if a slot is available at the destination point to park the bike. What we need to do is get that information out to travellers on their mobile devices before they start their journeys, and integrate it with bus schedules and information about the Underground.”
Bailey adds: “It’s important that customers understand what their transport options are so they can choose what suits them best. It helps make London a more efficient city that’s easy to get around.”
Cloud Platform for Developers Saves TfL Millions of Pounds
Without Windows Azure, delivering on the Mayor of London and the government’s vision for open data would have cost TfL millions of pounds in a new physical IT infrastructure and upgraded data centres. Gilbert says: “Frankly, that would not have been a priority for us, given our need to deliver value for money to the taxpayer.”
With Windows Azure, Microsoft took that load away from TfL. Gilbert says: “The cost to the taxpayer and the travelling public is marginal in comparison to what it would have cost to build a new infrastructure inside our own data centres. We’re now able to deliver a series of open data initiatives for travellers that would have not been financially achievable otherwise.”
Building for the Future in Partnership with Microsoft Services
The London Underground TrackerNet launch was seen by TfL as a ground-breaking solution that had huge potential for what is one of the largest transport operators in the U.K. Bailey says: “Making our data available to developers is a key element of our broader digital strategy, which couldn’t have been achieved without Microsoft Services. We have many other data sets that we’re keen to make available to the public. If Microsoft Services and the Windows Azure platform can be used to make more of these data sets available then that’s something we want to look at for the future.”Microsoft Services
Microsoft Services helps customers and partners discover and implement high-value Microsoft solutions that generate rapid, meaningful, and measurable results. As the consulting, technical support, and customer service arm of the world’s leading software company, Microsoft Services enables the successful adoption, deployment, and use of Microsoft solutions and technologies for all customers, from the individual to the enterprise.
For more information about Microsoft Services, go to:
www.microsoft.com/microsoftservices For More Information
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