Calls for DfT to work across Whitehall to deliver on transport data plan

Department released a major strategy last year, but now needs to collaborate more widely and tackle barriers to data sharing to ensure its aims are met, experts have told MPs

Experts have called on government to expand on the ambitions of the Transport data strategy, published last year.

The plan should be seen as a “foundational” paper rather than an “ambitious” or “highly refined one”, MPs have heard during the first session of an inquiry on the future of transport data 

Professor Susan Grant-Muller, chair in Technologies and Informatics at the Institute for Transport Studies s called for more “cross government-department thinking and leadership” from the Department for Transport (DfT). 

Doing so would allow for the strategy to “look sideways into other sectors”, so data collected for other reasons is of sufficient quality for other purposes, such as improving the transport sector, she explained. She also highlighted data on demographics as a “clear” and “huge gap” and coined it as “the big piece of the jigsaw” which would allow for more “tailored” services. 

“We need that boldness to be able to step forward and to look at data in quite an ambitious way to gain that overall integrated picture of what’s happening and how we can better prepare the transport system for the future,” she said.

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The decentralised approach to data collection, ownership and handling is hindering the transport system’s future potential, witnesses told the transport committee during the meeting.

David McArthur, associate director of the Urban Big Data Centre at the University of Glasgow, who attended as a virtual witness, said that the fragmentation of data ownership between operators and other firms including Google, is a significant barrier. He explained this had led to “little pots of data” covering the same thing, making it difficult to form a unified strategy.   

McArthur also highlighted that local authorities may not have the computing infrastructure needed, especially for “newer forms of data”.  

Other barriers were named as contributing factors to the lack of necessary skills across the sector and the “culture of fear” around data sharing. 

When asked how to update regulations to allow for the maximum amount of data to be shared, Grant-Muller suggested the introduction of a “public-good test”.

The transport data strategy policy paper was released last March, and it outlined how the DfT would work with the transport sector to use data “to help grow and level up the economy, reduce environmental impacts and improve transport for the user.”

In June, the House of Commons Transport Committee launched the future of transport data inquiry following proposals from experts and academics to MPs on what to investigate next. 

Sofia Villegas

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