Beyond the Tube: How London is using the cloud to open transit data

29 November 2011 | Michele Bedford Thistle, Business Manager, Government, National Security, and International Organizations, Worldwide Public Sector

I just returned from meetings in London where I had the opportunity to take advantage of the city’s excellent public transportation system. As a frequent visitor to the city, I’m always struck by how efficient and prompt the “Tube” is, and my most recent trip reminded me of an exciting initiative that London spearheaded with the help of some of my colleagues in the UK. What follows is their story.

With an average of more than 12 million passenger journeys a day in the London Transport system, ridership throughout Greater London continues to reach new record highs – just on the Underground alone, 28 million unique passengers travel in a given year. Traffic on London’s complex and congested transit network, including the London Underground, buses, the road network, and bicycle hire, can be unpredictable due to adverse weather, tourism, and major events, so accurate travel data is crucial to keeping the system running smoothly and without interruption.

Beyond the operational benefits of this data, Transport for London (TfL) saw an opportunity to make the information more widely available, which they saw as an important component of the Mayor of London’s policy on open data. So their first big idea was sharing information from the London Underground TrackerNet system (the system provides access to real-time information about train movements) to allow riders to plan travel appropriately based on actual conditions and more easily navigate the city. To accomplish this, TfL originally tried to develop a their own platform for the London Underground TrackerNet feed, but they were only receiving about 1,000 hits a day - mostly through small feeds to partners like BBC.

With the explosion of smart phones and other mobile devices, TfL faced a distribution challenge - how to deliver open data to these devices without putting an enormous strain on the principal TfL website, which already handles millions of hits a day. To do this, they approached Microsoft Services, which built a new real-time feed using the Windows Azure cloud platform. In less than six weeks, the cloud-based feed was up and running, and the TrackerNet feed is now receiving 2.3 million hits a day from mobile users since moving to the Azure cloud. Instead of spending millions of pounds on physical IT infrastructure and data center improvements, the city of London is taking advantage of a highly scalable cloud platform at very little cost to taxpayers.

In addition to easier visibility into the real-time status of London Underground trains, one of the many benefits to London citizens and visitors alike will be more convenient access to the Mayor of London’s recently launched bicycle program. From the convenience of their smart phone, for example, potential riders will be able tell whether bicycles are available at specific locations and if parking spots are available at their journey’s end, and this data will be integrated into bus and train travel information.

By offering new citizen services on the web and mobile devices, TfL is supporting the Mayor of London’s vision to make London the world’s most digitally accessible city. To learn more about London’s story, check out the Transport for London case study and video.

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Michele Bedford Thistle
Business Manager, Government, National Security, and International Organizations, Worldwide Public Sector

About the Author

Michele Bedford Thistle | Business Manager, Government, National Security, and International Organizations, Worldwide Public Sector

Michele is focused on sharing stories from government customers creating real impact for citizens, employees, economies, and students. She joined the worldwide team from Microsoft Canada, where she was also marketing lead for several technology start-ups.