A London Underground train enters Oxford Street station, below a realtime indicator giving passengers information about delays or cancellations. Photo: Getty Images
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Public transport bodies: producing lots of data, not necessarily making the most of it

The trend over the last few years has been for public transport authorities to accept that their data should be made public - while at the same time letting the private sector absorb the cost of making use of it.

There’s an app called Citymapper that is probably the one thing I would consider necessary to my day-to-day life, and the justification for owning a smartphone. The things I do on the move - listening to music, checking the web, etc. - are things I don’t need to do while moving; but knowing where I am and where the thing I am moving towards are in relation to each other is an everyday essential.

Obviously, this is what maps are for, and there are maps all over London, but it’s a big city, and coming to it for the first time can be very confusing. Transport for London has a journey planner on its website, but it often feels very unintuitive. For example, here’s what happens when you ask for help with a journey that a daytripper to the capital might take - from Paddington to Tottenham’s football ground, White Hart Lane:

Before I'd moved to London and learned the language of the tube or bus maps, and was merely a tourist, I found this format incredibly confusing. I was using the journey planner because I didn’t know how to get around the city, yet I was being given a list of places I’d never heard of and told to travel between them without any indication of where they were relative to each other. For journeys with lots of steps, or which involve buses, this format can make simple journeys seem convoluted. (And while the TfL site has had a redesign recently to clean it up, it's still the same basic idea.)

Citymapper, though, does this:

It's the same information presented as a map instead of a step-by-step list. It offers text instructions as well, but the key thing is it shows the user where they are and where they’re going, and where the stops along the way are. (And, when I went to New York City earlier this year on holiday, it was better there than the official step-by-step journey planner too.)

Citymapper doesn’t have a special data source - it’s simply using the official data that these transport systems generate in a different way. TfL, like many transport authorities, has what's known as an application programming interface - or API - which tells external apps and sites how to communicate with its servers, and how to retrieve the information they need. This isn't just trains, but also bus departure times, bike hire docking station statuses, taxi information, fare breakdowns, and so on, and is why a search on Apple’s App Store or Google’s Play Store for "London transport" delivers dozens of results.

It's left me wondering this: why is it that public bodies like TfL are so good at producing data, but so bad at using it? Why is an organisation like TfL - which has such a strong brand identity, and which puts so much care and attention into its tube maps, for example - happy to sit back and let third parties control how the public experiences its information?

I emailed Azmat Yusuf, Citymapper’s founder, about this, and he got back to me:

Wouldn't say transport authorities are bad at using data, they are focused on infrastructure running on time which requires utilising their own data. We are focused on apps and we like to do that well.

Most transport authorities are opening up data, some more reluctantly than others, since it’s a cost to them. But starting to believe and understand that they are better off letting others like us develop applications. Also there's an argument that the data belongs in the public domain anyway."

It’s an interesting idea, that the data “belongs” in the public domain. TfL is a government body, and in a democracy that should mean that we - the public - have a right to its data. Yet we’re living through a strange time, when privatisation and outsourcing make it hard to define what counts as government and what as private company; and where the government is committed to starving TfL of subsidies so that it has to fund itself entirely out of fare revenues, so that it operates less like a public utility and more like a private firm.

Perhaps we should simply be grateful that TfL goes to the lengths it does to provide such comprehensive real-time data feeds across its jurisdiction. The situation could be worse - as I discovered when I spoke to Tom Cairns, founder of Realtime Trains.

His site uses a large range of data sources to piece together a picture of exactly how a train moves around the UK relative to its timetabled route. The problem is that those data feeds are highly reliant on human input to reflect things like cancellations and delays - and if somebody doesn't keep updating those feeds as fast as new information comes in, the official sources, and by extension Realtime Trains, would return innacurate information.

Cairns and his two colleagues use the knowledge of how the network operates - from the lengths of trains to their top speed, to how fast signals change on certain track sections to how long it takes a train to pull away from the platform - to model the likely future arrival time of a train relative to how well it’s already done in its journey. “I have people who go around the UK noting down the timing of the wheels after they start and compare that to the signalling equipment, to get a more accurate picture of what is happening,” he told me. “There’s a lot of work that’s gone into improving the accuracy of the information by hand.”

The problems he faces, though, illustrate the difficulties small developers face when trying to work with a large institution with a reluctance to share its secrets.

When I get to train companies about getting information directly they say ‘why should we give it out to you, a tiny third party on the periphery?’ In their industry, it’s slow moving. They never had competition in this field either, and they didn’t see a problem with what they’re doing. The opening of [data] took many of us by surprise, in part because we knew they didn’t see a problem.”

Cairns also says that good ideas on third party sites, like his map of track obstructions, have a habit of popping up on the official journey planners a few months down the line. "It was added to the National Rail development roadmap," he explained. "But of course it’s three years later and it still hasn’t appeared." Institutional willingness countered by institutional lethargy.

TfL is due to update its API in the autumn to make it adhere to more universal data standards, and theoretically make it easier for developers to use. I emailed TfL to ask what the motivation was for letting third-party developers loose on its data - whether, for example, it was because of budget limitations - but digital PR lead Rubin Govinden told me that they don't comment on what other people have done.

He did say this, though: 

There could be eight different travel apps out there and they could all be offering their own service, but the one thing they have in common is they're using the most accurate and up-to-date information. They don't have to wonder ‘is this data pukka?’ - yes it is, yes it's up-to-date, they're all going to be saying the exact same thing at the same time in the same way. What we're giving developers is the ingredients they need to produce the products that our digital customers want.”

When pushed for more specifics, he repeated that he didn’t want to name any individual app or site: “If it's to work successfully, lots of people have to work together, and we're doing our bit by making our data freely and openly available in as many formats in a recognisable format that can be used by everybody.”

This echoes Yusuf's views - TfL's focused on the bit of its job that involves running the trains on time, and the data bit is the afterthought. It's perhaps one model that other public bodies - and not just train companies - could look to when figuring out just how much they want to commit to developing their own tools to make use of the data they produce.

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.