#StartedinOxford Zipabout is giving its transport platform away for free

By: Alex Froom, Zipabout

We had a great day at Low Carbon Britain yesterday and we’ve been overwhelmed by the support we have received for releasing a free version of our platform for Local Authorities.

Understandably it has also been met by a certain amount of suspicion! The first question people ask is “Is it really free?” and the second is “What’s in it for you?”, so I thought I’d try and explain.

Is it really free?

Easy – yes! We will grant a free licence to any local authority (in the UK initially) who wants to use the Zipabout Transport Graph in any form. This will be available through the Amazon Web Services marketplace and through the AWS Public Sector Team, so there may be minor AWS fees, but we will not charge for a licence to use the platform unless you commercialise it to directly generate revenue. We won’t fly around the country to pitch it to you or attend multiple meetings at your premises at our expense either – the downside of free is that we can’t afford to – but you’re very welcome to come and see us in Oxford any time. There’s a lot of good tea and cake here and it’s a must for anyone who likes Sunday evening detectives or minor wizards.

What’s in it for us?

This is also pretty clear from our point of view. Our core business is the personalisation and optimisation of transport networks and we have a business model that already supports our more advanced platform (shameless plug: if you’d like to receive our whitepaper on personalisation in transport drop us a line here). We work with some brilliant clients in European transport and this is our commercial focus – enabling them to deliver MaaS, Intelligent Mobility and personalised transport globally around the needs of their users. This requires complex integration and custom development, and that’s where our business lies, but for these schemes to work properly they need to be aligned to the region they serve – and that’s where we have seen the disconnect.

We came into transport from the digital sector. Back in 2001 it wasn’t called Big Data, it was just Really Expensive Data. It wasn’t in the cloud (somebody else’s computers) it was in data centres (your own computers). Coming from a world that could process huge volumes of live unstructured data in the early 2000s it was a surprise to find just how far behind the digital curve the transport sector was.

There are many theories and reasons about what is holding the sector back, and this is not the time to address them (Engineering culture! Procurement! Frameworks! Innovation via competition! Hackathons!) but the thing that really stood out was where all the money was going. Most of the time it didn’t look like very good value for money to us. Sometimes we thought people were winding us up when they told us how much they were spending on digital services or transport data! Often, millions were spent on projects that failed not because they were particularly difficult but because they were being built by the wrong companies.

The pattern was always the same – consultancies charging hundreds of thousands of pounds to provide generic data from dated systems (post code / tally surveys anyone?), IT firms charging thousands to host and serve that data, digital agencies unable to generate ROI from data, companies charging for access to their own client’s open data… Worst of all was the millions of pounds being spent on reinventing the wheel (often making it square in the process) – all being funded by a public sector under pressure to deliver tomorrow’s Smart Cities, clean air and transport visions with limited budgets and technology capabilities.

There are better things to be spending money on – data isn’t the hard bit anymore.

We see our Local Authority product as a natural by-product of our core business (we’re already processing most of the data for different reasons), but we also think it’s a bit better than most of the alternatives – it still amazes us how many ‘experts’ are still talking about structured, relational data for example, or are completely unable to process the huge volumes of real-time data that meaningful analysis requires (I’ve included some anonymous quotes below to give you a feel of where we’re coming from!). We don’t want to make money from consultancy, as easy as that is in this space – we want to enable UK innovation, not suck budget from it.

The UK is not as far ahead as it thinks in this sector. You don’t have to travel far around Europe, let alone the rest of the world, to realise that some of the things that are seen as exciting and disruptive here have been commonplace elsewhere for some time. Maybe it will lead to commercial projects for us, maybe it won’t, but either way the additional costs are negligible so it’s worth the investment to see where it leads. Every partner we work with helps make the product better, which in itself is a huge benefit to us – hopefully it can also help level the playing field for others as we go.

Get involved

If it sounds interesting, have a look at our product sheet and get in touch. There are some useful tools, like a real multi-modal journey planner (You can now park at the station! Wooo!) that understands live and predictive performance, CAVs and private non-scheduled services (e.g. DRT). There’s an unlimited data-depository that will support any format you throw at it. National transport data (rail, bus et al) and communication tools. Nothing revolutionary but still streets ahead of a lot of offerings.

Best of all, ours gathers data for you (not google)

Right now the platform has been commercially deployed since 2013 and already has around 5 years of national transport, operational, conditional and social data in it, but we’re building new self-service interfaces so you will be able to crack on without hindrance. It’s a learning curve so input from potential partners is welcome – we have some great partners already, like Oxfordshire County Council, but we welcome contact from any proactive organisations who want to make a difference.

If you’d like to find out more, or help shape the analytics tools we are designing, come and see us for a chat – but please don’t be offended if we don’t come and see you or give you the hard sell.

This article first appeared on the Linkedin website on 9th Novermber 2017