“Innovation thrives in cities with well-mapped public transport”: An Interview with Christopher Yatrakis

Christopher Yatrakis joined WhereIsMyTransport as Commercial Director in August 2020. From his base in San Francisco, he’ll help grow our business globally. Joe Peach, Communications Director, sat down with Chris to discuss his background, journey through the mobile industry, and why he finds the WhereIsMyTransport mission so compelling.

JP: Welcome to WhereIsMyTransport! Tell us about your interests and what attracted you to the business.

CY: The thing that is most attractive to me is the mission. When I first met Devin de Vries, our CEO, we talked about the mission and focus. That brought back a lot of personal memories for me.

When I was a young kid, 6 or 7 years old, I was fortunate to be able to visit my grandparents in Greece. They lived on a small, remote island called Syros. My grandfather had a car, one of just a few on the island at the time, but he used it to go to the factory during the day, so we didn’t have access to it. So we used the bus to get around.

Christopher Yatrakis, Commercial Director at WhereIsMyTransport

We were little kids waiting out in the blazing sun trying to get to the beach, and in the afternoon, it was brutally hot. We had to just wait, not knowing if we missed the bus and were wasting our time — sometimes for an hour or so. That was my first exposure to opaque transport systems that work in a quasi-public, quasi-private fashion.

My example is one of luxury problems. This is a little kid going to the beach, compared to an adult seeking to feed a family of six or seven, spending 30% of his or her income on public transport.

WhereIsMyTransport is finding ways to improve the underlying digital infrastructure associated with transportation in a way that hasn’t existed previously. It’s extremely exciting to be part of the team.

What is your background?

I’ve been working with GIS data for about 10 years. I started at a company called Factual, which recently merged with Foursquare Labs. There, we focused on places or points-of-interest (POI) data. We set the standard for POI data, working in 50 countries and 24 languages. The global operations are similar to the capabilities and mission that we’ve got here with WhereIsMyTransport.

I also worked at Ericsson, looking to leverage our understanding of devices to improve advertising targeting and measurement. In total, I’ve been involved in GIS and mobility data for 15 years.

Bringing those things together — the mission and your background — what are the opportunities that you see with WhereIsMyTransport?

I think the opportunities are extensive. Innovation has thrived in cities with well-mapped public transport. This is not the situation currently in the majority of the world’s cities.

It’s almost as if there’s a pyramid of capabilities that we’ve built based on digital infrastructure in developed markets. You can’t look at a map, journey plan, or get alerts in the Majority World because the data doesn’t physically exist. There are a lot of knock-on effects that result from the lack of underlying digital infrastructure.

Yesterday I was in downtown San Francisco, close to Google’s offices, and I was thinking a little bit about the interview that we’re having today. It struck me that many of the tools and technological capabilities of developed markets are based on access to ground-truth data gathered through electronic means.

But that’s not the case in the Majority World; to get the ground-truth data, you can’t do it digitally, you physically have to be on the ground. Meeting that challenge can unleash opportunity for billions of people.

What is the status quo of these regions and why have the opportunities been unharnessed, from a business perspective, to date?

Building the capability to map ground truth is hard; 92% of the Majority World’s largest cities have no complete map of public transport. The status quo is not having the data available, and without that, it’s like me as a little kid standing on the corner — you just don’t know when or if the bus is coming. WhereIsMyTransport is focused on solving that problem.

Informal public transportation is the dominant form of transportation in many of those large cities. Mexico City, for example, has an informal network that is seven times bigger than the formal one. Looking at it on a map, the informal network just explodes in terms of the size — its depth and breadth –compared to a city in the United States.

The market application is wide-sweeping for public transport data. For example, the general transit feed specification (GTFS) is the standard for developed-market transport systems; it provides complete network maps and timetables.

Many companies — mapping and Mobility-As-A-Service (MAAS) companies — need GTFS data to operate their products and services. For those companies, there’s a wide gap between what they have for the Majority World and what is needed. WhereIsMyTransport fills that gap.

Another category is automotive manufacturing. Automotive firms are always eager to increase revenue-per-user and per-mile-driven. Transport data represents massive fleets of vehicles, and understanding fleet usage can increase revenue and lower emissions. Lowering emissions is becoming a big area of focus, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, which will have some of the highest vehicle emissions within the next 10 to 15 years.

We’re already starting to see this play out. Leading companies like Google and Toyota Tsusho, who have already invested in WhereIsMyTransport, are looking at finding new data sources and using them in creative ways.

Better data can also mean a better in-cabin user experience. Right now, the in-cabin user experience today is often dangerous and challenging. There’s great opportunity to make tremendous strides in terms of improving that for a very large group of people.

Finally, infrastructure providers and governments really want this data. Infrastructure providers, such as planning firms or investors, can use the data for feasibility assessments. Governments want the data for similar reasons, as well as any general city planning, compliance, and operations.

How important is reliable insight from local mobility experts in these cities for businesses?

Reliable, accurate data makes it possible for a host of companies to enter new markets or offer new services to existing markets. WhereIsMyTransport is really at the vanguard of looking to collect this data and make it available to the marketplace. I want to re-emphasise here that for reliability, a ground-truth approach, with boots on the street and feet on buses, is the only way to capture an understanding of local informal transportation networks.

Bus to Kini — a fishing village on the Greek island of Syros

WhereIsMyTransport has been doing this since 2015. We’ve mapped 40 cities across 27 countries and over one million kilometres. It’s really our process, combining global and local expertise, that makes us the leader. Today we work with over 1,000 data collectors in the field.

My major in college was anthropology, and we spent a lot of time studying oral tradition. With many informal public transport stops, the location is passed along in a similar way. Names could be based on a KFC or corner store that’s been gone for 10 years. That knowledge isn’t something that artificial intelligence (AI) can decipher.

WhereIsMyTransport has the local market knowledge to create that sort of data, as well as the currency of conducting business on a global scale. And we’re not talking about user data, we’re talking about structured transportation data utilised by organisations that can improve billions of lives — giving new tools and more access.

WhereIsMyTransport is so much more than just a data organisation. It creates opportunity at the base of the pyramid — a crucial data asset for movement of goods, services, and humanity.

I’m extremely proud to be a part of the team and excited by our mission. Forward!

Stories about data, mobility and Majority-World megacities.