Using big data to improve transport’s green credentials

Professor Susan Grant-Muller

One of  a series of podcast interviews (audio only) by the Transport Systems Catapult, entitled ‘Exchanging knowledge and sharing ideas on Intelligent Mobility’ in which experts highlight key areas on the road to Intelligent Mobility and to discuss their visions of the future.

The kind of research that I do concerns mobility profiling and the use of intelligent incentives, so that people can make more sustainable choices about the way that they travel and if they travel at all. It concerns the Big Data picture within the whole scenario that goes with low carbon futures, the green agenda, eco-savings and so on. I’m very keen that within this we do actually engage with real–life people because, in my view, too much Big Data experimentation is taking place with so called friendly-users, who are people in the same work place as the people doing the research or students and so on. So I’m very keen that we get out and really engage with real-life members of the public.

One of the questions that is asked of me sometimes by members of the public is: ‘What do you think would incentivise me to change, I have a routine and I have a habit in terms of the transport choices that I make?’ Here are some examples of the kinds of things that we do; I think we are all familiar with things like Nectar and the points system, where we are rewarded from the consumer choices that we make within the supermarkets, also some train operators use it as well. Now points are very nice because it actually gives the choice of reward back to the person who is earning the reward. That means that we don’t have to struggle with what kind of person this is, what their likes and dislikes are. People like to accrue points. We know this from different schemes that are out there, ranging from making transport choices, booking particular services online to making choices in supermarkets. So points are one (type of incentive).

We also talk about information as being a positive incentive as well. People who are properly informed about the choices that are available to them actually feel very well incentivised to be able to reconsider the way that they’re making journeys. We have  done serious games – Gamifications. These are challenges for the section of the population who really like to engage in this way.

We feedback information to people as well, which is a different kind of incentive. For example, knowing what your carbon footprint is for a particular kind of journey and knowing that you could halve it, through making a different kind of journey or a journey by a different mode – for some people that actually is the clue to triggering them into reconsidering their situation.

Then there are a variety of other things that we have used and maybe will use, so things like a free muffin and a coffee at a local café or a restaurant could be an incentive. We have also played around with things like cinema tickets, so we work with a variety of third party suppliers in terms of what these things could be and we are very keen to engage with providers of incentives and to explore what the business model is for people to be a provider of incentives in this kind of transport scheme.

The Challenges 
It is about different kinds of people working together, rather than us doing research in our particular niche, because we are all experts in our niche and we are all keen to continue as experts. But, actually we need to broaden our horizons and work with people who are legal experts or ethicists, specialists in different kinds of technology. People work in different modes. I think that we have got a lot to learn from the aviation sector for example about automation and we need to start to have that dialogue rather than seeing that community as doing its research (separately to us) and ourselves looking at highways and road surface transport related research. So really a lot of the blockages I think will start to become unlocked by us working together.

The Future
In terms of Big Data I think we will continue to collect it.  I think many of the debates that are running at the moment will be closed down very, very quickly. Even over the last two years I’ve seen the agenda shift very quickly in terms of some of the issues. But I think that we will see far more in the way of embedded sensors around the (transport) system and a real stripping out of the tangible visible evidence of those sensors being around us. I think we will see a restoring of the landscape, motorways for example, will be stripped of their gantry’s, a lot of the urban spaces will be greened and the traffic signals and lights and so on will be gone and we will be back in, it sounds a little bit utopian and maybe this is wishful thinking, but I think we’ll be back in some very pleasant liveable cities and communities.


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