Hassle to get around in Prague? Blame big data, but hope for its potential

You had been looking forward to that weekend in Prague for a long time. Finally, some time off from the busy work routine. Booking the flights was a seamless experience. Opening the internet browser, easily comparing available airfares – it took only a few clicks to have the ticket in your inbox minutes later. But, the real hassle starts when you arrive in the Czech capital: Trying to buy a bus ticket to get to the city center, you are stunned not only by the absence of an English menu, but also by the variety of options available. So, why is there still such a big ambivalence of ease between one-modal-transport booking and intermodal transportation?

The longer one thinks about it, the stranger it gets: Buying air tickets to get from one European capital to the other is easy as pie. But once you switch transportation mode, things get complicated. This holds true, even if it doesn’t involve a language barrier. Enter any German city and you will be confronted with a different set of public transportation options and prices – little of it possible to book online or in advance. And real-time updates about intermodal connections? Well, a different story.

So, what’s at the root of the unfavorable situation: Essentially, it’s a data problem. Here is why.

1. Fragmented data sources

Transportation information is highly fragmented. Online flight booking platforms aggregate information about flights and prices from several airline providers to increase transparency and choice. But the more modes of transportation you add to the equation, the more complex it gets: bus, taxi, tram, metro, train, air. Add some more car-sharing, ride-sharing and call-a-bike options. It’s a mess. And even though there have been some notable attempts to integrate all available data into one application (Ally, quixxit), as soon as information sources are multinational, things get difficult again.

2. Fragmented process

The very process of travel is fragmented: gathering information about available routes, ticket purchasing options and travel itself are three very different process steps. While some platforms might aggregate information about multimodal transportation, you’ll not be able to book tickets there – as this process remains a separate entity. Additionally, pricing systems are not even close to being standardized across transportation modes.

3. Ownership structure

Transportation companies are oftentimes highly protective of their data and object to full integration into meta-services. Even if they do provide standardized access through APIs, the booking process oftentimes remains their property and is not subject to any integration. Therefore, any kind of meta-innovation still has its natural barriers.

4. Incompatibility of data sources

In the presence of fragmented data from the transportation companies and other mobility providers, aggregation is a challenge itself. But what about other real-time information? Social media (Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Instagram etc.) – incredibly large amounts of data every day – complements live transport information and provides a new dimension of accuracy and data depth. But the interoperability of different sources prevents the combination of structured and unstructured data.

What’s ahead?

To enable a more personalized, more targeted – or in short: better – mobility experience, aggregation of data across two dimensions – travel process and transportation modes – will be inevitable. And there are many players, which have a key interest to be the driving force behind this aggregation. First and foremost, transportation providers – be it public transportation companies, car manufacturers or others – are involved. Deutsche Bahn has been launching some initiatives, and leading OEMs such as Daimler and BMW are also quite active. In addition, various meta-services are trying to push data integration.

Who will win the race?

That’s still tough to predict. Because the challenges remain: fragmentation across sources and processes, as well as incompatibility. To increase innovation speed, it requires a joint effort of industry leaders, data experts and mobility thought leaders.

The sharing economy has presumably enabled us to improve the utilization of our assets, generating a new set of mobility options readily available. But for some reasons, we are still struggling to unlock fully integrated intermodal transportation services – which would save us not only costs, but primarily our most precious resource: time.

There it so much data. But as long as it remains fragmented, “big data” and its benefits will be nothing but a blunt vision. And a trip to Prague without hassle will remain wishful thinking.


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