The Hong Kong tram operator has decided to share real-time operational information with an app company to attract passengers to use the century-old service, but the government is lagging behind global standards in opening up transport data for public use.

Hong Kong Tramways will link up with the Citymapper app, which operates in 31 cities, to provide passengers with information such as arrival time and destination of the next three trams approaching their current stop.

“The users will be able to get a better idea of their total journey time, including the wait time for the tram, and this is updated every minute,” said Gene Soo, General Manager of Citymapper in Hong Kong.

Citymapper’s Gene Soo (right) and Hong Kong Tramways’ Emmanuel Vivant. Photo: Citymapper.

The data comes from 600 tags buried along the tram tracks since 2012, which will be upgraded by May to enhance real time positioning.

Soo told HKFP that Citymapper relies on open data, and most cities where they operate have interfaces and systems for the public to access, including the Singaporean government sharing live data from buses – but not the Hong Kong government.

“All the startups use that [Singaporean] database,” Soo said. “Everyone goes at it using their own angle at solving the problem and guess what happens, the citizens benefit!”

The app company has not been able to get live transport data from the Hong Kong government, as the government says transport companies have the rights to their data and are not obliged to share it with the government.

Currently, the Tramways and Uber are the only companies in Hong Kong providing data to the Citymapper app. Functions to estimate arrival time and routes for MTR, buses and ferries rely on unofficial data.

Charles Mok. File Photo: Facebook/Charles Mok

KMB and MTR have their own official apps providing real-time updates on services for passengers.

In January, IT sector lawmaker Charles Mok asked the government whether making transport data public could be a requirement for KMB’s franchise renewal.

Advocacy group Open Data Hong Kong founder Bastien Douglas told HKFP that Hong Kong is in a “rather unique position” unlike other areas in that transport is not wholly run by any level of government.

“While it is understood this relationship means government is limited in how it can run and direct transport, it also means there are more possibilities for innovation through competition and application of technology,” he said.

Real-time updates on services from public transport apps. Photo: HKFP.

He added that if transport data is saved and made available, it can help provide better analysis to answer questions about urban development, transport effectiveness and more.

“What routes are typically late or overburdened? What scenarios can ease this congestion? What overlaps are there on certain routes and how can we better optimize our routes? These questions can be answered with better data.”

“[It] would benefit riders, stakeholders, and the public, beyond just what the company can do with it.”

Kris Cheng

Kris Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist with an interest in local politics. His work has been featured in Washington Post, Public Radio International, Hong Kong Economic Times and others. He has a BSSc in Sociology from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Kris is HKFP's Editorial Director.