Q&A: Pablo Lang and Graeme Leighton on public transport data and women’s mobility in Amman and Beirut
Our mission to fill the mobility and location data gap in emerging markets has taken us to Amman, Jordan, and Beirut, Lebanon. In this thought-provoking conversation, we spoke with Pablo Lang, Data Product Project Manager, and Graeme Leighton, Data Solutions Lead, about their work producing the data needed to understand public transport and its impact on women’s mobility patterns and socioeconomic empowerment.
What do you do at WhereIsMyTransport, and what’s your background?
Pablo: I’m responsible for project management and delivery of our data assets. Whenever we enter a new market, I coordinate between project stakeholders to ensure that we’re delivering according to scope, budget, and timeline. My background is in urban planning, and I’ve got a management degree in urban development. I’ve always been interested in contributing to cities being more sustainable, equitable, and better places to live. WhereIsMyTransport allows me to bring these things together. Public transport is an important piece of the puzzle, especially in the markets where we work.
Graeme: My role is Data Solutions Lead. I work as the bridge between our clients and our product teams, understanding the challenges and problems our clients face, and understanding how our solutions and our data can meet their needs. My background is in urban planning and I’m doing a Master’s in transport studies.
What were our goals from this work in Amman and Beirut?
Graeme: For this project, our client was looking to understand the impact of public transport on women’s mobility patterns and socioeconomic empowerment. We helped with three components. The first was understanding the ground truth. What is public transport really like in Amman and Beirut? We produced up-to-date Transit Data that reflected on-ground reality.
The second thing was conducting interviews with commuters in order to understand their preferences, their needs, what their experiences were, and what the reality was for them on a day-to-day basis.
Lastly, we undertook safety audits of different public transport hubs, looking at how physical infrastructure was either supporting mobility, or where there were barriers to people feeling safe, to people using those spaces, and to accessing transport.
Pablo: For Amman and Beirut, our client was particularly interested in any data points related to accessibility, affordability, availability, safety, and personal security. The data we produced will inform a market analysis, which in turn will influence the planning and prioritisation of public transport investments in these cities.
What was it like working in Amman and Beirut for the first time?
Pablo: In any city we enter, there are challenges. There’s a reason why public transport data is not available, or only partly available, in our markets. In Amman and Beirut, we worked with a local team who would collect the data, and engage with commuters and drivers. That meant our collection tools not only needed to be translated into Arabic, they also had to be localised to be culturally appropriate.
Graeme: Translating our tools meant changing them to accommodate right-to-left scripts. This is something we’d implemented before, but hadn’t tested in a project. This might sound simple, but it’s more than just changing which side of a text box that scripts align to. We had to look at implications for our whole workflow, the way people read and interpret data, and the way our user interface is set up. We made these changes so our collectors in each city could collect data in a way that was natural for them.
Pablo: We also had to make sure that the questions we asked were consistent with local culture. We ran research workshops to achieve this understanding, as well as talking to our local partner and collection teams. This feedback ensured that all our tools were adapted to the environment in which we use them.
Graeme: In Beirut — as in many cities where we work — we found neighbourhoods where our surveyors would not necessarily be welcomed with open arms. We’re used to this, and our local teams make sure we make smart alternative choices, so that we still come away with a complete picture of ‘ground truth’ in the city.
Pablo: We learnt something interesting about Beirut through our pre-collection research. Some drivers of vans with a white plate, as opposed to a red plate, operate illegally. To minimise risk, we asked our data collectors to only board vans with a red plate. But as there were routes that were only operating illegally, we developed a new safety protocol to ensure our data collectors were safe, and our data was complete. Safety was also a consideration for our audits of public transport hubs — we did them at night to assess lighting conditions. Again, we developed a whole safety procedure, and we only ever sent people in groups.
Graeme: We had a lot of measures in place to make sure our data was complete, accurate, and fit for purpose. That was quite challenging with our surveys. We had targets we needed to hit with the demographics of commuters. There was a clear bias towards younger male commuters over female commuters in the older age ranges. That made it quite difficult for our targets, but it ultimately showed the reality of the problem. There are very few female commuters due to the barriers that are in place.
How does public transport where you live compare to Amman and Beirut?
Graeme: In Cape Town, there is a mix of up-to-date, formal public transport — including a Bus Rapid Transit system and a rail system — and on the less formal side, minibus taxis that provide the bulk of the public transport service. There is basically the opportunity to hail a minibus on every corner of every major road. And there’s little information published. This is not too dissimilar from Amman and Beirut. They have some formal bus systems as well as informal, smaller vehicles moving around and providing the bulk of public transport service to communities in the city.
Pablo: I also live in Cape Town, but I was born and raised in Southwest Germany. Although many well-known German car manufacturers come from the south of Germany, public transport is an important piece of every city — even the smaller ones. What is different with Beirut, and to some extent Amman, is that it’s super formalised. It’s organised by national, provincial, and local governments, and it’s quite reliable, safe, and frequent. In my hometown, there’s a focus on tram and rail as opposed to buses. And all of the data is there, provided by the local government. In Amman and Beirut, that’s the role WhereIsMyTransport now plays.
What’s the value of public transport data in emerging markets?
Graeme: Getting public transport right is part of a fundamental freedom. Freedom of mobility, freedom of access. Public transport is connected to every aspect of life. If you can move, you can get to job opportunities, you can access services, you can explore, you can be active, you can visit friends and family. I realised this when I got my first bicycle. I had freedom that my friends didn’t have. I could get to the shops, I could start a business, I could do deliveries. I could do things that people who relied on others for their movement couldn’t do. That continued when I started university as a bus user. Public transport was my main mode of transport, and I could move around the city and explore. When the bus worked, I would gain time where I could relax, read, or listen to a podcast. When it didn’t work? I would spend an hour waiting anxiously for something that might or might not come before making another plan. That lack of information would undermine my whole day.
Pablo: There’s a multitude of use cases for public transport data. It can be ingested in a journey planning app, or it can be used to analyse a network and inform decision-making. For any use case, what we’re doing at WhereIsMyTransport is making something visible that is unknown to governments and private organisations. These informal public transport networks that we’re looking at — they are highly flexible, super dynamic, and demand based. One of our colleagues calls it a “bottom-up solution, by the people, for the people.” It’s filling a gap left by the state and, because of their informal nature, the information is not there. So if you’re a development bank, you need mobility data and location data as the basis for everything you decide and everything you do. If you want to make a transport system more efficient, reliable, sustainable, and safe, the sort of data we offer is the baseline information you need to inform your decisions and your investments.