“Good data is the foundation for insights into consumer needs”: An Interview with Devin de Vries

Devin de Vries is CEO and co-founder of WhereIsMyTransport. He spoke with Joe Peach, our Communications Director, from the WhereIsMyTransport office in Mexico City, discussing the challenges and opportunities in public transport data collection in emerging-market cities .

JP: WhereIsMyTransport has committed to mapping the public transport networks of the Majority World’s 30 largest cities. What’s the background to this goal?

DdV: WhereIsMyTransport’s mission has always been to transform the public transport experience for people who live in emerging markets — places where billions of people rely on informal transport, yet there is typically no information on networks or vehicle locations.

Our journey began some years ago trying to put out a consumer product in Cape Town to fill this gap. We realised though that without good information going in, information which represents how people actually move, the passenger experience on the other end was not going to be transformative. That began a long and hard journey of understanding how we could first provide data for these markets.

The reality today is more than 90% percent of Majority-World cities have no transport map to speak of. That’s so different from developed markets, where you can get full maps and real-time travel information with a few smartphone taps. That data is aggregated from transport operators, government, and industry.

Devin de Vries, CEO of WhereIsMyTransport

But in the Majority World, we don’t have the luxury of aggregating data. The data is simply not available to aggregate. So WhereIsMyTransport goes out and collects data on the ground to reveal these digitally invisible public transport networks. In the majority of these markets, some information is available for formal transportation modes, but they make up only 10–15% of the total network. 85% or more of public transport services in emerging-market cities are informal.

Our work began in Africa. But we now work in the Middle East, Latin America, Eastern Europe, and Asia. We’ve thus far mapped 40 cities globally, and have further client engagements on 16 of the Majority World’s largest cities.

As we built our organisation to map these cities, we got to a place where we wanted to make a big, bold move. It’s hugely ambitious to commit to mapping these 30 cities, and we don’t make it lightly. But we have the right technology, the right expertise, and the right team to solve this problem.

When I talked with Chris Yatrakis, he shared that innovation thrives in cities with mapped public transport. What can you tell us about mobility in WhereIsMyTransport’s target cities and why certain business opportunities have been unharnessed in these regions up to now?

Many companies that would look to operate or sell products in Majority-World markets are constrained by data. Good data can be the foundation for answering questions or providing insights into consumer needs.

Our work is heavily within what you might call the informal economy, where the data is not openly available, but it can be captured. Megacities in the Majority World are asset-rich, but information-poor. And that’s at the heart of what we’re trying to change. Mobility information is not only useful for commuting. It touches a wide range of adjacencies, from city governments trying to make better land-use decisions to businesses trying to provide services to new customers.

That data is virtually untapped because it’s really hard to gather and keep up to date. When you listen to how people give directions to one another, for example, they often use landmarks as reference points, which is hard to translate into data unless you are on the ground, in the community. There is a mismatch between how information is used and the global data standards for technology products. And that data is always changing.

There’s no central database to turn to when transport routes change, or even when a new street is built. You have to gather that data yourself, which is what we do.

WhereIsMyTransport works with local communities on data collection projects but also supports global data and technology standards. How does that balance work?

GTFS is the globally accepted standard for data representing public transport networks. So for us to succeed we need to capture formal networks — which is often challenging in these markets — and we also have to gather all the data on informal networks and represent it in a globally accepted format, so that it is useful to the businesses and technology companies who need it.

To bring that data together — including the essential data on informal networks that does not fit the standard GTFS format — we’ve developed our own GTFS extensions. Take fares as an example. GTFS specifications for developed markets don’t always wholly represent the fare models seen in emerging markets. Work we’ve done in that area has allowed us to accurately represent ground truth.

Informal public transport in Mexico City

We build these datasets by recruiting and training local teams to map entire cities. In many cities, with Mexico City as one example, we’re fortunate to build our complete data sets on top of earlier efforts from the government, or open initiatives that the government kicked off. And the local teams that work with us to map every city go on to become part of our global community. The core of our Latin America team today was part of our first mappings in Mexico City back in 2018.

It’s no longer good enough to map annually. In cities where we manage a data licence, our local teams continuously maintain our data sets, updating them daily. Since informal transport networks are dynamic, it’s important that we are able to capture any changes, so that we can deliver the most up-to-date information possible to our clients and their users.

What have you been doing in preparation for these data collection projects in the 30 largest emerging-market cities?

The build process has been exciting. A key stepping stone was challenging ourselves to map three megacities during the same time period, each in under 60 days, with a completeness that no one’s ever done before. We mapped Dhaka, Bangladesh; Mexico City; and Gauteng, South Africa — a combined population of 57 million people.

Completeness is an important factor for us. Standard GTFS has optional data fields, for which very little data is ever included, even in developed markets. In emerging markets, this data is never included. Station entrances and exits are one such optional field. They’re always absent from GTFS in emerging markets, and yet having this information makes a massive difference.

In Mexico City, knowing which entrance or exit to use when you’re tackling one of the larger metro stations or CETRAMs can save you 10 minutes. On a 3-hour journey, that matters.

So we decided early on that if we’re going to pursue this bold ambition to map the world’s 30 largest emerging-market cities, we want to build datasets that could comfortably compete with those of Tokyo, London, and New York. That means mapping and including everything — even if it’s optional in the GTFS standard. It also means being inclusive of networks out to the peri-urban areas and far-flung communities who travel many hours to and from the city daily.

Working with our clients, who license the datasets, we captured the uniqueness of each of these cities, which really pushed our processes and our products. A good example of this is in Dhaka. Public transport passengers differentiate between services based on vehicle attributes: standing or sitting, air conditioning or not, and so on. Fares vary based on these features, so it was critical to capture them, and we built the capacity to do that.

COVID presents challenges to our business, which relies on data collection, and it also challenges public transport generally. But informal networks have adapted very quickly to meet new demand patterns. As that happened, we were already building capacity for remote data collection. That was on the roadmap already for 2021; we brought it forward to 2020. We have our first two clients for that product coming up: for two megacity data collections in Southeast Asia. So as public transport is adapting to the times for COVID, so are we.

Stories about data, mobility and Majority-World megacities.