MOD Sandbox Workshop: Discoverability of On-Demand Services in Trip-Planning Apps

The MOD Sandbox Innovation & Knowledge Accelerator workshop kicked off on March 12, 2018 with a panel session on efforts to expand the discovery of the growing number of on-demand services in trip-planning apps to enable a Mobility as a Service (MaaS) future. The discussion was moderated by Charlotte Frei of DemandTrans, who introduced the topic by describing how data around trip discovery and transactions must tie into customer needs of MaaS.

Aaron Antrim, from transit consulting company Trillium Solutions, was first to speak and discussed the Open Trip Platform app and data specifications for the Vermont Sandbox project. The goal of the project is to make MOD more discoverable as it integrates additional modes, including flexible services through GTFS-flex, and allows the possibility to “trip chain” from one system or city to another. These type of system-wide integration methods are particularly important considering rural communities often have flexible transportation providers and currently don’t have the virtual means to plan a trip using an app that involves transferring from one transit provider to another.

The work in Vermont offers an opportunity to create a set of data standards and open source software and platform–with the goal that other transit agencies may be able to adopt its use in the future. An important consideration in the flow of the app development is that the data standards must first occur through a set of data specifications that when grouped together can work to become a standard interface.


Krista Huhtala-Jenks, from Finland’s Ministry of Transport and Communications, described Finland’s proactive approach to create policy to encourage a wide range of services and require data sharing and interoperability. Their philosophy centers on the user, which Finland views as the key to business development and providing a range of transportation options. Finland recognizes that even with good data, a lot of the time, you are working against user travel behavior and habits. By providing a set of supportive regulations and policies that levels the playing field between service providers and modes, they are helping to create a competitive set of transportation solutions–but more importantly no one mode has an inherent advantage over the other.

In the first phase of the rules, known as the Transport Code, market access was deregulated for road transport providers, with basic requirements for API use and interoperability. In the second phase, mobility providers are required to make their ticketing and payment APIs open for third-party service providers and interoperable with public payment systems. Also, they are required to provide various “essential data” to the customer (e.g. pricing) and to the government for analysis and research purposes (e.g. aggregated supply and demand).

A system like this can encourage integration across modes and systems, an important component of MaaS, as providers are required to open their data. The end goal of the transport code is to make services more efficient and agile, by first viewing the customer as the king. Sharing data through an open API and streamlining the regulation process to promote competition are key components to making this happen.

Bibiana McHugh, from TriMet, the regional transit agency in the Portland, Oregon area then described TriMet’s work on its OpenTripPlanner (OTP) as part of its MaaS initiative. The original OTP was released as an open source product in 2009 and the FTA Sandbox grant has given TriMet the capacity to expand the number of modes included, integrate a payment plan, and improve backend features. The TriMet OTP uses an open source platform – such as Geocode earth, Open Streets map, USGS slope data, as well as accessing other API data sources. These data are then viewed as instruments to pave the way for MaaS through a standard API.

Jake Sion, from Transit App, gave a brief overview of his company’s real-time trip-planning application, and how the company promotes the MaaS movement in its 140-city operation. Transit app advocates for the “Free the API” concept for a complete open data structure while making efforts to foster data sharing even with many resources closed off to the public–citing lack of data availability from dockless bikeshare companies that are privately operated. However, the need for data sharing could be critical to the success of MaaS, such as it is in Finland, to allow more detailed access to payment and ticket integration. If cities want this data to be available, they could potentially choose to require providers to open their data as a condition to receive an operating permit.

The Q&A dived into the challenges of data sharing with similar responses across the panelists. Jake Sion noted completion, lack of time, and expense of developing a framework for sharing data as primary challenges. Krista Huhtala-Jenks noted, that in Finland, they try to bring stakeholders together on a technical and contractual side. Decentralizing data operations and sharing has the added benefit of making shared mobility neutral across modes–and when that happens, the competitive barriers between operators are less of a consideration. Other noted remarks by the panelists include technical issues (such as the case for flexible route service) and an importance to improving completion and accessibility to the public.

The panel closed with a question that dealt with the different levels of sophistication of the public. It was important to identify equity issues and address them. This should always be at the center for transit agencies as they are obligated to provide the most accessible service possible to users. Another panelist simply stated: if you build it they will come–in reference to an integrated app and the private sector’s willingness to participate. Krista then followed with the European counterpoint and noted that the private sector has a lot of clout if they work together on a central project. She further noted that proper regulation and policy framework must be in place to help make change. Also emphasized was the importance of transit agencies recognizing that data can vary in terms of sensitivity, and the necessary protocols must be in place to protect more sensitive data.