#phantombuses: How real are the Real Time Information screen announcements at bus stops?

While public transport authority Centro have said there are over 600 bus stops in Birmingham with Real Time Information (RTI) screens, information is not available on how many of them are functioning.

To find out more about the state of maintenance of these screens, recently Brum Transport tried out #phantombuses  – a crowd sourced experiment at gathering real time data on bus stops in the city.

We liveblogged our observations from these four different locations in the city:

These included:

  • Arrival times announced on the RTI screens


  • Mysterious disappearances of the bus numbers from the screens


  • Time when buses actually turned up at the stops


  • Faulty RTI screens at bus stops:

While some of these bus stops had the RTI screens, other bus users relied on the Network West Midlands phone app, some others had only the paper timetable at the bus stops to refer to.

The data on the number of bus stops was revealed through a freedom of information (FOI) request filed earlier by Brum Transport.

(The FOI figures here referring to ‘Birmingham’ include the city centre and the wider Birmingham area.)

Network West Midlands say they already have their data open for developers

Public transport authority, Centro have said that they already have their data available to open data users.

Reacting to a guest post on Brum Transport about Network West Midlands opening up their raw dataCentro spokesman Steve Swingler said:

“We make our data available in a number of ways. Data such as the NaPTAN bus stop location information is made available through data.gov.uk.”


The NaPTAN data “uniquely identifies” all points of access to public transport in Great Britain.

He further added:

“Bus departure information both scheduled and real time departures is captured in the TravelineNextBuses API which is available through NextBuses.

By making our data available in this way Centro is maintaining the national standard for the provision of this type of information.”

Through an earlier guest post from Simon Whitehouse on Brum Transport, we were trying to look at the possibility of opening up transport data in the West Midlands.

This could enable developers to build more applications, websites and mobile services and get creative with data.

LIVE from the Monday traffic after A38 closure (for @bbcwm)

I’m travelling on buses from the Grey Hound stadium in Perry Barr to the city centre to find out how the traffic has been affected on this route by the A38 tunnel closure.

Park and ride details at bus stops

Why Network West Midlands should open up their raw data for bus timings

By Simon Whitehouse

Network West Midlands are currently promoting the different ways that they make their real-time bus information available.

It includes …”On Street displays, Bus station/Interchange Displays, Interactive Totems, Interactive Kiosks, Mobile Applications, Website applications and the SMS Service “Text Time”

screengrab from bus time app

What it still doesn’t appear to include is the raw data in real-time provided in a way that allows developers to create their own applications from it.

It would be so much better if they chose to do this, for a number of reasons.

1. The opportunity to reach people through different channel and platforms

By making the data available it makes it possible for somebody else to come along and build a better application, website or SMS service than the one that NWM already have.

It’s also a lot more likely that people will build travel applications that work on a wider variety of devices.

For instance, initially there was just an Android version of the mobile travel app. There is now an iPhone version, but NWM probably had to wait for more money and/or resources to develop that.

When Transport for London released their transport data it was quickly followed by a proliferation of applications across every platform you can think of. One developer, Adrian Short, created a travel application that only works on the Unix command line.

It’s not the sort of thing that you’d expect Transport for London to have developed, but, it’s useful to Adrian, and to the 33 people that downloaded it in the first month after he released it.

I’ve long thought that it would be possible to integrate a real-time public transport widget in venue websites. That’s simply not possible without a reusable raw data feed.

2. You can concentrate on getting the data right

The more that other people are using your data to create their own applications the more time you can spend on making sure that your data is accurate and reusable.

The Open Data Institute hosted company Placr have been set up to create “a single UK source of transport information by unification of timetable, live departure and disruption information for bus, rail, metro and ferry services.” They provide an api at transportapi.com.

When UK companies like Placr are creating these services, and Google Maps are providing national coverage of public transport services, Network West Midlands should put their effort into getting the data right those services access more useful rather than concentrating on developing their own applications.

3. You can’t think of everything

Then there are the slightly more playful uses of transport data that becomes possible when you are more open with your content.

Chromorama is a game developed by Mudlark. It takes people’s travel data from their Oyster Card accounts and “makes it into a game where every journey counts in a competition for the city”.

You get more points the more you vary your journey, the idea being that the game “encourages people to make new journeys and use public transport in a different way by exploring new areas and potentially using different modes of public transport.”


Audio: Are information screens at bus stops working?


Regional transport authority Centro, responsible for bus stops in the city, spends over 100,000 pounds annually on the maintenance of the Real Time Information (RTI) screens at bus stops. This budget covers about 1500 screens in the West Midlands region covered by Centro.

But are these screens functioning? I found out what the commuters think of them and what Centro has to say about the matter.