Buses, Data Collection and the Value of Data

Libra ite domum

I recently attended the OECS’s Virtual Island Summit. I’m currently ploughing my way through the sessions and will be writing about that in the short term. There were a lot of fascinating presentations over the few days, and much is of direct use to us in the Caribbean.

On to the update.

Buses, Data and the Value of Data

The 1st of October witnessed the introduction of a structured and timetabled bus service in the north of the Island of Martinique. The project had been long discussed but had had plenty of difficulties along the way due to structural and operational challenges - read, people!

The North Caribbean coastal and inland towns served by the coastal road had until that point been serviced by taxicos, operating with few restrictions. As a daily user, you were either unconcerned or had no choice but to wait and pay. The taxicos were always late, disorganised and too expensive for the service offered. Safety was secondary; no seat belts, doors that had long past their usable life span, as examples.

I’ve written previously about the state of public transport in the Caribbean and how users are often in a “suck it up” or nothing situation:

When we look at the end users and their relative power in the value chain of the public transportation business, and I'm specifically talking about the Caribbean as I know its not the same in London or New York, we see that they are relatively powerless — essentially they are in a take it or leave it situation. With no powerful central public transportation organisation with a solid offer, users are powerless to exercise pressure upon that organisation in order to obtain better service. With no organisation of users as lobby, they relinquish the right to exercise pressure on abusive pricing of poor to bad services. Yes, they can just choose not to use the buses and Taxicos, but what alternative do they have?

The news of this new service piqued my interest obviously, and particularly as I hoped the service would have digital technologies natively integrated from the get-go.

Remember, Digital Transformation is hard and much harder for companies that have years and sometimes decades of culture built up in the business. Culture is hard to modify and align with new objectives which is why we see Thomas Cook happening.

Thomas Cook is additionally the victim of its decision not to transform into an agile, Internet-savvy business with consequences that run into thousands of job losses around the world and an estimates 150000 British holiday makes stranded unless the UK government can step into charter planes for the rescue, an estimated cost of £100m.

Founded 178 years ago, Thomas Cook is a giant in the tourism industry, with a breakdown of its sales as 67.8% for flights, holidays, accommodation and insurance and 32.2% in airline services. At the end of September 2018, they owned 186 hotels and had a fleet of 100 aircraft. Its sales breakdown is split between the UK at 24% and the rest of Europe at 66% with Germany alone counting for 37.8%.

As you are no doubt acutely aware, the Caribbean is one of the group's leading destinations and many companies in the region are exposed to the risk of Thomas Cook's impending failure.

Thomas Cook failed to seriously take its business in the direction of digital, instead strategically opting to open and run 563 high-street sales shops, financing much of the expansion in debt that was in-part attractive due to historically low-interest rates in Europe, but servicing that debt, now at around £1.7bn, is expensive, even if it is relatively low, running at around £150m/year.

While the world was transforming digitally, Thomas Cook took the opposite route and is now paying the price with an impending doom unless they can finance their way out of the current hole.

When you are a nascent enterprise, you have a responsibility to build in digital services as a default, not an afterthought. Why? Because it is going to be harder, more expensive and take a lot longer to retrofit digital into your operations if you don’t do from the outset.

I’m disappointed to learn that Martinique Transport (the body set up to operate public transport in Martinique) have no such digital technologies in view.

A pdf timetable exists on the website, but some of the most basic technologies that are available on the market for over 20 years are not present. You can’t see when the next bus is arriving (there’s no indication of time to the next bus), there’s no app you can use to look up the routes, timetables and bus times. You go to the stop, and you wait. When the bus arrives, you get on comforted by the fact that at least it’s a regular schedule compared to the previous service.

Anecdotally, I’ve noticed more people at bus stops that ever before, so the service is having an impact on mobility, and as I mentioned in my interview with Greggar Deterville of RIDE Caribbean:

One thing is for sure, mobility provides fuel for growth in an economy, the more we can do to make that easier, more efficient and cheaper, the better it is for the country.

Besides this, implementing these services could have benefits for Martinique Transport as well. I’m talking about Martinique Transport specifically, but the same argument can be applied across the Caribbean, so I hope you don’t feel I’m targeting them intentionally.

In implementing digital services, each bus would need a device that reports back in near-realtime their location. At the datacenter, that report would then be integrated into the database and rationalised as required. Data rationalisation is the process by which the data collected is audited for inconsistencies, duplicates and potential errors, treated and committed to the database in its final form. This data is then exploitable by anyone wishing to use it for other purposes. And a few seconds delay on the location of a bus is not particularly significant.

The database then becomes the basis for the development of simple tools that are valuable to Martinique Transport and possibly open up the potential for monetisation.

An app for Android and iOS wouldn’t necessarily have to be developed by Martinique Transport; it could be independent with Martinique Transport charging a reasonable annual fee for access to the database via simple APIs. That would promote third parties to develop apps, a few rivals competing to provide a unique take on presentation and usability would be a healthy thing, and Martinique Transport would benefit from simultaneous revenue from the developers.

The devices required on the buses have a cost, it is non-neglige, but a simple prototype solution would be very cheap to implement. What do we all carry that has GPS builtin and an always-on data connection? The Smartphone!

Give a couple of drivers a cheap android smartphone with a data plan, lock the phone down to prevent abuse and ensure that the GPS application is fired up and reporting back through the APIs. This quick and dirty solution would, in a short period, prove the value of collecting that data, because not only would that data be valuable for users of the services, but Martinique Transport itself could benefit.

Data, as I’ve written before, is crucial for business in Digital Transformation and that we’re often data-rich but usage sparse:

Data is the new oil in the digital economy

Although there is some dispute in the reality of the phrase, with some reasoning that it’s not, the phrase holds true for many businesses looking towards digital transformation. Businesses produce data all the time, but it is mostly lost, stored but not accessed or downright under-exploited. We are data-rich but analysis-poor, and it’s to our detriment.

Once collected and aggregated the data would provide insights for Martinique Transport about the efficacy of the timetable, provide information to help tweak the schedule. Adding user numbers would afford a more meticulous analysis of the appropriate bus types to use on the various lines (peaks and troughs in usage, for example). A plethora of value is available if the data is there.

I hope I’m wrong and that this is in progress already throughout the Caribbean.

Libra eunt domus(1)

In an ever-crumbling house of cards that it Facebook’s Libra project, not only has LINKPaypal publicly pulled out, but yesterday saw the announcements from eBay, Stripe, Mastercard and Visa that they will no longer be part of the project.

Remember, Marc Zuckerberg is set to testify on the 23rd of October to the House Financial Services Committee in a hearing set up to investigate the project and its implications to financial stability.

It is looking increasingly likely that Libra is to become a cryptocurrency just like Bitcoin and the others, albeit famous and very popular.

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1 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Romani_ite_domum