Citymapper calls out RATP for blocking real-time data; agency says system needs upgrade (Updated)

Apr 11, 2016
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This story was updated with comments throughout from RATP at 19h20 CET. 

Citymapper has launched an online petition drive to rally users to its side as it finds itself fighting a decision by Paris’ public transportation agency over access to real-time bus data.

[UPDATE] A spokesmen for Régie Autonome des Transports Parisiens said in an interview that the agency had never authorized access to its real-time data to third-party applications such as Citymapper. However, the agency is now taking the system offline to overhaul the architecture because last month it began crashing repeatedly under the strain of traffic from outside applications.

RATP plans to have the new system in place later this year to give official access, which will include some fees for heaviest users.

“We are currently doing everything we have to do to make it happen,” the spokesman said.

[END UPDATE]

Citymapper, the company behind the mapping application is based in London, but for several years has offered its mobile mapping app in Paris, one of its most popular locations. Last week, the company was told by RATP that it was going to lose access to the agency’s real-time bus data.

It’s potentially a problem for Citymapper because the app lets users find the most efficient routes to their destinations in a city by crunching data for all public transportation services, taxis, bicycles and walking.

But it’s also perplexing, says Jean-Baptiste Casaux, business development director for Citymapper. He said the company did not receive an explanation as to why the public agency planned to cut off access.

“There is a lot of frustration that this is happening,” he said. “It’s shameful for the city and the country. We get invited all the time by Paris and the French Government to give speeches about open cities and open data. It’s unbelievable that the transport agency is acting against its users in such a brutal way.”

Over the weekend, RATP spokesman Franck Avice told LeMonde that there were some issues related to credit, promotion and money:

“We are for open data. We want to help start-ups that offer such new services. But we do not intend to give our data to some players, who do not even mention us in their application. If allowed to use it for free, we may…lose our relationship with our customers.”

For Casaux, a Paris native, the turn of events is particularly disappointing. In part because a large number of the Citymapper employees are French, and have been quite proud of their country’s embrace of open data. While Citymapper is in 31 cities now, including several others in France, this is the first instance of the service being blocked in any fashion.

Indeed, he said several smaller cities across France have reached out to Citymapper, asking how they could get their public transportation data ready to use with the application, he said.

While Casaux is still puzzled by RATP’s decision, he did note that last November, the agency announced that it would invest €30 million and hire 100 people to develop its own transportation apps. And that’s left him wondering whether the agency now sees former partners like Citymapper as competitors.

“They might see us as a threat,” Casaux said.

[UPDATE] Not so, said the RATP spokesman who explained that over the past year, the traffic driven to RATP’s real-time data system has at times tripled due to outside applications. While the agency had never officially okayed these uses, the RATP felt it had to take additional measures by closing down access to give its IT staff time to rebuild the system to handle the much bigger load it anticipates in the coming years.

When the system is re-opened, there will be some associated fees targeted for heavy users, such as Citymapper. The RATP spokemsan said the fee structure had not been determined. He said the agency would not profit from the fees but felt it was fair that for-profit companies share the costs of investing in maintaining the infrastructure.

In the meantime, he said RATP remains dedicated to supporting application developers and the principle of open data. Just last week, the agency hosted a hackathon that attracted 130 developers. [UPDATE END]

These may be of no comfort to Citymapper, which says it first learned there may be issues with RATP a few weeks ago when it briefly found its real-time data access blocked. The company temporarily used the static bus timetables from the RATP until it implemented a workaround to regain access to the real-time data, Casaux said.

As of now, Citymapper is still getting the real-time data. But it could be cut any time.

So Citymapper decided to go public with the dispute. In a blog post, the company emphasized its role in helping consumers and creating more transparency:

“Open Data is what allows us to create unique features to facilitate the use of public transport for our users, such as compare in real-time the travel time between any means of transport, or find alternative routes in case of disturbances.”

The petition has so far received 7,984 signatures toward a goal of 10,000. If it reaches that number, it would be sent to Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo and Economic Minister Emmanuel Macron.