man on bench
Questioning convention

Being data dependent – can getting our fix be different?

For anyone who is a commuter they know just how bad it is when the trains ‘go wrong’. It seems like there is no system in control and a train appearing some kind of miracle.

When there is poor weather you can expect disruption, after all it could be ‘wrong kind of sun’, that SouthEastern trains recently reported. Our natural destination is online to get the latest information, and this is where the problems start.

If this data is incorrect, then all of our subsequent actions are void and you’re faced with a few hundred tutting commuters.

Recently I looked the nationalrail.co.uk (ATOC) site, Southeastern.co.uk (TOC) site, the screen in the waiting room, the platform LED display and listened to the announcements at the station. Each of these sources was reporting different running times. So the key question was which could be trusted when they were all different?

The line from the coast all the way to London is littered with ‘station stops’, not just stations or stops these are clearly extra special. At each of those a wide number of people are staring into their black mirrors waiting for enlightenment and to get their data fix.

Now the trains could have a better location services fitted to them, a cloud based (for scale) hosting system could power all services and everyone would understand from the one true source just what was going on. But this comes with investment and from once working in the rail industry, there simply won’t be the investment available for such an activity given everything else competing for budget.

Would we be willing to give away some of our own anonymized data for return of up to date running times? Why couldn’t there be a Waze for trains?

If each of us is automatically checked in when entering a station and then others are travelling towards us, we can calculate the time to our next service. Aggregating the live traveller data – our very own – should be our trusted source.

The question for service designers – can we create a product that users are willing to automatically share data (even in the background)?

The question for business and government – who will provide a platform to change rail customer experience? And what is the commercial model?

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