Greater Manchester wanted to improve its transportation services by creating mobile device apps that travelers could use to better plan, manage, and enjoy their journeys. Transport for Greater Manchester
decided to make its data publicly available and used Windows Azure to create and host a real-time open data platform. Third-party developers are using this platform to create a wide range of apps that make it easier and more enjoyable to use Greater Manchester’s
public transport network.
Greater Manchester, England, has the fastest growing economy in the UK outside London and is home to four Nobel prize winners, but it has to admit that other regions had done a great job of enabling many cool mobile device apps that let the public perform real-time
trip planning, check bus and tram schedules, and otherwise manage their travel from the palm of their hands. Greater Manchester wanted to develop the same kinds of cool apps—but realized its budget would go further by making quality transportation data available
to third-party developers, rather than trying to develop applications itself.
Transport for Greater Manchester (TfGM), the body responsible for overseeing Greater Manchester’s transport network, worked with Microsoft partner Black Marble to come up with an ingenious and cost-effective way to make city transport data publicly available.
It used Windows Azure, the Microsoft cloud services development, hosting, and management environment, to provide a scalable place to store all of the city region’s transport data. Windows Azure also provided a highly secure, interoperable way for developers
to access this data. Black Marble used the Microsoft Visual Studio 2012 development system to create a single data model across all TfGM data sources.
TfGM completed its Real-Time Open Data Information System in just six weeks, and more than 100 developers have already jumped on board to develop apps. With new transportation apps available for Greater Manchester, citizens and visitors will be able to travel
around the city region faster and more easily and to enjoy their journeys more.
The Full Story
Share Transport Data Freely To Encourage Cool Apps
Transport for Greater Manchester (TfGM) oversees transport services and facilities in Greater Manchester, England, which has the fastest growing economy in the UK outside London, with a metropolitan population of 2.69 million. TfGM is responsible for the city’s
trams, bus stations, strategic road network, and cycle centers and strives to promote choice, economy, and simplicity in moving around the Greater Manchester area.
||By using Windows Azure, we were able to create a world-class transport data-sharing solution in just six weeks and go from being behind to being ahead nearly overnight.
| John Garner
Head of Information Services, Transport for Greater Manchester
In 2012, Greater Manchester felt that its transportation information services needed a boost. Other regions offered many cool smartphone apps that let the public perform trip planning, access real-time arrival and departure schedules, book taxis, discover nearby
stops, get real-time traffic congestion updates, and even view live traffic webcams. Greater Manchester wanted to develop the same kinds of cool apps—but did not have the resources to do so.
Actually, other regions didn’t have the funds or resources to develop these apps, either. They had made their real-time schedule, bus location, traffic, and other data available to third-party developers and let them create the apps. Greater Manchester wanted
to adopt the same strategy.
The problem was, data that TfGM collected was very “siloed”—it resided in different departmental systems that didn’t talk to one another. If TfGM was going to give outside developers access to its data, it had to first make it easy for developers to interact
with the data. It then had to figure out how to host and scale what could end up being terabytes of data. “Someone might come up with an exciting app that could send usage through the roof, and we had to be ready for that,” says John Garner, Head of Information
Services, Transport for Greater Manchester. “We also needed to be able to handle uneven passenger loads throughout the day and, long range, to accommodate expected population growth in Greater Manchester. We had to have a data storage platform that could accommodate
thousands to hundreds of thousands of users.”
In Autumn 2012, the city region came into some funds earmarked specifically for delivering real-time transport information, improving journey times, and generally making travel around Greater Manchester easier. TfGM needed to quickly pull together a bid
to turn its vision into reality.
Build a Scalable Data Delivery Solution
TfGM engaged Black Marble, a local member of the Microsoft Partner Network, for assistance. “Setting up the back-end infrastructure for hosting the real-time data could potentially be the most time-consuming and expensive part of the solution, so we addressed
that first,” says Robert Hogg, Managing Director for Black Marble. “We worked out the cost of creating the infrastructure on-premises and in Windows Azure, and realized that Windows Azure was by far the most cost-effective way to go.” Windows Azure is the
Microsoft cloud services development, hosting, and management environment. By using Windows Azure SQL Database, the database capability of Windows Azure, the city could gain the cost-effective scalability it needed to handle usage spikes. It could scale and
pay monthly as apps were developed and gained popularity.
Windows Azure also offered data integration services that would make the data delivery task much easier. TfGM could use these capabilities to easily add both data and subscribers and let developers create apps using any programming language they wanted.
“Using Windows Azure would let us do a lot more, a lot faster, for a lot less money,” Garner says. “We also felt that Microsoft had an established reputation as a cloud provider so the service would always be there, performing well.”
With the decision made to host the data infrastructure in the cloud, TfGM and Black Marble turned to bringing uniformity to the city region’s transport data. Black Marble defined a single data model and created a set of application programming interfaces
to give third-party developers an easy way to interact with the city’s data. “We put a lot of emphasis on creating an interface that was very easy to use, to encourage developers to use it,” Hogg says. Black Marble used the Microsoft Visual Studio 2012 development
system and Microsoft Visual Studio Team Foundation Server 2012 as its development environment.
Black Marble applied the new data model to the city’s many transport data sources and used Windows Azure to let developers subscribe to any of this data. It also created a developer portal containing sample code and a forum for questions and answers, also
hosted in Windows Azure. Total solution development time was just six weeks.
Harness the Imagination of Third-Party Developers
Transport for Greater Manchester’s Real-Time Open Data Information System, launched in March 2013, is off to a great start. More than 100 development projects are underway. One new app is a journey planner that helps travelers plan their journey using multiple
modes of transportation. It shows them bus and tram departure time “countdowns,” real-time vehicle locations, and estimated times for each leg of the journey.
Another app lets travelers input a set of locations—home, work, town center, etc.—and then creates a personalized transportation map showing all the needed transport connections. Someone is even developing a game (PAC-MANchester) that lets travelers play
a Pac-Man-like game using the City of Manchester as the map and city buses as game pieces. The goal is to collect items from around Manchester for points, while avoiding “enemy buses.”
“We want to harness the imagination of developers everywhere, and by putting as much real-time data about our buses and trams out there, the more developers we will attract,” Garner says.
Today, TfGM makes available real-time data about the city region’s parking locations (capacity and number of available spaces), Metroshuttle locations, and journey times for several of the city region’s most popular bus routes. TfGM continues to add data
from across the region’s transport network—ultimately including data on more than 800 bus routes.
Deliver Better Citizen Services at Lowest Possible Cost
With new transportation apps available for Greater Manchester, citizens and visitors will be able to travel around the city region faster and more easily and enjoy their journeys more. “With the rise of smartphones and all the informational apps about where
to eat, what to see, and how to get around, people want transport information on their phones,” Garner says. “People have an expectation that these kinds of apps will be available to them, because other cities have them. By using Windows Azure, we were able
to create a world-class transport data-sharing solution in just six weeks and go from being behind to being ahead nearly overnight.”
The Real-Time Open Data Information System project is Greater Manchester’s first step “into the cloud.” It is considering migrating its email messaging system to Microsoft Office 365, which makes popular Microsoft email and other productivity products available
as cloud services. “By using Microsoft Lync Online and other Office 365 services, our employees would be able to more easily communicate with one another and share information with other city departments,” Garner says. “Having modern tools helps city departments
work together better to deliver better citizen services.”
|Figure 1. By making city transport data available to third-party developers
on Windows Azure, the City of Manchester has enabled a host of exciting
apps, such as the City Navigator, a public transport journey planner and
navigation application for on-the-go use.
|Figure 2. The Locus app lets travelers draw a personalized transport map
between favorite locations.
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