In Cape Town, informally run minibus taxis are the largest mode of shared transport. Users rely on personal experience and scant information to get around, and the industry isn’t well-integrated with other modes. WhereIsMyTransport completed a three-week data collection project to capture the routes, fares, and frequencies of the 600+ routes that cover the city. The data is available through our open platform, integrated with data for other modes like BRT, bus, and rail—the first time in the world that formal and informal have been digitally integrated on an open platform. With Cape Town as our inspiration, we will be collecting data from more cities in 2017.
Whether they are called taxis, tuk-tuks, jeepneys or matatus, informally run transport accounts for up to 80% of public transport passenger trips in medium-sized cities across the emerging world. While a staple of everyday urban life in Africa and elsewhere, information on these services is sparse and difficult to access.
Cape Town, South Africa, is home to a variety of transport modes—rail, buses, and the ubiquitous minibus taxi—and many commuters use several of these modes each day. The taxi industry in South Africa grew in response to the exclusion of millions of residents from urban centres, and today is the only mode of transport to many outlying areas. There are over 7,500 licensed taxis in the city, accounting for 15% of all trips taken in the city, more than any other public transport mode besides walking. Millions of people rely on their knowledge and personal experience of the system, word-of-mouth, and the occasional signboard to figure out how to get where they’re going. There is no central source of information on the fares, routes, and frequency of the taxis—so we decided to create one.
The WhereIsMyTransport platform is an open platform for integrated public transport data in emerging cities. As our home base, we had data on every other mode of transport in Cape Town—from the rail lines to private sightseeing buses and university shuttles—but without the taxi data, a crucial mode was missing.
That’s why we launched the Cape Town Taxi Project, collecting data from every route and common stopping point, information about fares and frequency, and making all that data available through our platform to anyone who wants to build an app or website. Graeme Leighton, the coordinator of the project put it simply:
“We believe that the information challenge in our cities undermines our infrastructure. We want to make the systems that exist more accessible for everyone.”
Over the course of three weeks, our data collectors captured over 1,000 routes, travelling 13,410 kms. They used mobile tools that we created to track the routes, and to collect important metadata about its operation, on and off-peak times and on the weekends. That metadata allows our algorithms to model the taxis’ behaviour, meaning our journey planner can provide estimated times even though the vehicles don’t have a set timetable. We created backend tools to process the data each day as it came in, validating, cleaning, and snapping the coordinates to the actual road network to make sure all the information in our platform is as accurate as we can make it. “Every assumption about the network in Cape Town was challenged,” says Leighton. “We discovered dozens of previously unknown routes, and many documented routes no longer operated.” Of those thousand routes, 657 of them proved to be unique—another important learning for the team.
Data is verified as it is collected through both human and computational means. Data collectors methodically work through route lists, comparing them to those available at the ranks and discussing all known routes from that rank with the rank managers and drivers. As it is collected, the data is visualised on a map and checked by the collection coordinator for features such as route length, coverage, and network density; this includes comparing routes A-B and B-A, confirmed unidirectional routes, or unusual frequencies. This method ensures that every route that is active in the city is captured, even low frequency or weekend only routes. Some routes may exist on paper in city registries or licences but no longer be operational; these routes are not reflected in our data.
While the taxi industry has been criticised for resisting regulation and interference, our collectors found that the drivers and rank managers they interviewed were happy to share information and receptive to the idea of making it available. Leighton says they didn’t see any of the pushback they expected:
“Once they know that we want to make it easier for people to find and use taxis, they cooperate. This is recognition from the industry that information can help them.”
We recruited local data collectors with intimate knowledge of the system, training them in our tools and providing them with everything from power banks to lunch. “It was really inspiring, how many of the data collectors were passionate about what we’re doing,” says Leighton. One collector, Cry Maumela, was interested based on his experiences as a commuter: “The experience of our transport in Cape Town and how it can be horrible at times, and me being a public user—that’s what pushed me.” Maumela was so motivated that he has joined the WhereIsMyTransport team full-time to help expand taxi data across Africa. “If more users of informal transport knew what we’re trying to achieve, they would be interested in it. Besides collecting data for more cities, we’re also showing how practical and useful it can be to help people get where they want to go.”
The data from the Cape Town Taxi Project is openly available through the WhereIsMyTransport platform. Already, several developers have expressed interest in including taxis in their apps, and there will be a public hackathon to rapidly build and test solutions (the hackathon will be held March 3-5, 2017). This is the first instance globally of integrated data for formal and informally run transport modes, available openly. Cape Town, however, is just the beginning.
“Everything we learned in Cape Town is improving our collection in other cities in South Africa and beyond,” Leighton says. “But what we’re doing is far bigger than just us. While our platform has the capacity for data on every city, we hope this project will show that it can be done, quickly and efficiently, and inspire others to start putting their own cities on the map and making their systems more accessible. We’re even hoping to make our tools available to anyone interested in contributing to the world’s first open platform for transport data in emerging cities—the WhereIsMyTransport platform.”