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Integrating vs. Interfacing: The Vital Difference for Your Transit Technology

Nov 16, 2018
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Intelligent transportation systems are a core part of your transit technology architecture

What does transit integration really look like? I recently spoke about this on a webinar - and most importantly, talked about the difference between real integration vs. just interfacing technology. Listen to the full webinar here.

Waiting at a bus stop or on a subway station platform can feel like forever. If riders don’t know whether the bus is on time or exactly how many more minutes they need to wait, they feel as though they’re at the mercy of the transit agency’s schedule. Not knowing feels like you are not in control, which can make you miserable.

This is the psychology of waiting: when we’re waiting for unknown amounts of time, the brain perceives the minutes spent as longer than they actually are, on average multiplying wait times by 1.2 to 2.5 times!  

But what riders don’t know are all the back-end pieces of the operations puzzle that have to fit to make accurate, real-time communication possible.

And your IT people shouldn’t be the only ones who understand how everything needs to work in sync. Agency-wide transparency and buy-in on your operation’s back-end systems will help employees and stakeholders adopt new technology as it advances. We all know new tech developments can happen in a flash, bringing new ease of use and capabilities. 

When customer-facing services are at the forefront of business development and growing ridership, having the right technology architecture in place is a priority. There’s a mind shift that’s happening in the transit industry that recognizes technology as the engine of change. It’s the key to making a digital transformation where agencies can truly transform the customer experience and become more efficient.

For example, with the right software, if a bus in revenue service has an unexpected mechanical issue, a work order can be automatically created in real-time within your agency’s maintenance department.

It can also automatically update personnel within scheduling and dispatch that the bus is no longer available for service and a new one will be needed to maintain your revenue service. The new vehicle and operator assignment then occur automatically and service continues on without any interruptions.

Think of your transit system as an ecosystem. At the center is your Intelligent Transportation System (ITS), where you have two key components. One is computer-aided dispatch (CAD) that handles dispatching, mapping, field communications, and data reporting and analysis. The other is automated vehicle location (AVL) to track where buses are along their route by GPS and receive alerts when there’s a disruption.

How ITS Connects Your Operations Team

ITS, with CAD and AVL, is at the center of the other tech systems that work in harmony, queuing the right data 24/7 for your operations to run smoothly and keep riders in the know.

The key is to have a system that actually integrates, rather than just interfaces – and that’s where most transit agencies aren’t focusing.

The Case for Integration vs. Interfacing

Instead of departments working as silos and using disconnected technology, when all departments use integrated systems, they can share information easily. This cross-streaming of information is what allows you to automate many of your daily processes and make sure there is consistency—and accuracy!—throughout the data shared.

Which brings us to the question of technology: what systems do you have and how are they put together?  

Do you have one software company’s suite of systems that are designed to work as one overall integrated “solution?” Or do you have several different technology systems from one or more software vendors?

Industry buzzwords like “integration” and “interfacing” mean different things and have different outcomes, so it’s important to understand the distinction.

Integration is where information is shared across two or more entities that are completely in sync with each other. This means they can maximize the amount of information that is generated from one source, as well as make the most of the information generated to and from other systems. They’re designed to readily share that data and make all systems that much better.

Where integration is flexible and synchronous, interfacing is just the opposite – rigid and limited regarding what you can share and do. When you interface one system to another, much like building a bridge to link them together, it works to satisfy your needs of today only.

But down the road, if you need more information from that other system, or need to share information with a new system, you would have to go back and redevelop the interface and reconstruct that bridge or create a new bridge from scratch! Obviously, this requires additional work, time, and resources. Interfacing can be an immediate fix but not a long-term solution.

At most transit agencies, technology interfaces, it does not integrate. As a result, they have to run “siloed” solutions, one-off customizations and in-house developments to bridge technology gaps. But over time, that interface doesn’t change, it gets older and older and eventually becomes obsolete. So this is really an unsustainable approach of technology past.

In some companies, systems architecture is older than the freshman tech talent who maintain it. This legacy architecture may seem stable on a day-to-day basis, but with fast-tracking innovation like mobile and analytics, architectural maturity is a challenge that’s not going to go away—and one directly linked to business problems. Heavy customization, complexity, inadequate scalability and “technical debt” are impacting the bottom line.

In Deloitte’s 2016 Global CIO Survey, 46% of 1,200 IT executives choose “simplifying IT infrastructure” as a top business priority. Almost 25% found the performance and functionality of their legacy systems “insufficient.”

Value of Purpose-Built Integrated Systems

A fully integrated system for transit is purpose-built to serve all the core operations, not just the functions of one group or department. The system is made to work as a highly-skilled, responsive team that can evolve as new technology and new capabilities are developed.

At Trapeze, we utilize a “versioning release” plan—the latest one is version 18 (to coincide with the year it’s released)—where each product has one major update every year on a consistent annual schedule. This way, our technology developers know what new capabilities are coming to each product so they can see how these innovations can influence and improve all of our other products through integration, and make the entire solution even stronger.

One example of this power of integration is around locational-based advertising. What that means is that you can share GPS location information generated from your onboard ITS system with other solution platforms.

So for example, when a rider is at a particular stop and the doors open, the infotainment screen will be fed the actual location details and show advertisement specific to that particular stop. Imagine identifying the Starbucks at that very stop and being able to tell your ridership that they can bring in their bus pass to receive $1 off their coffee! That’s just one little example of the power of integration, and just the beginning of things to come to improve rider experience and develop new revenue streams for transit to thrive.

If your tech wasn’t actually integrated, then the GPS location information couldn’t be shared directly with other platforms – you’d either have to build a solution to interface with the other platform, or create a custom-one off scenario to send that data periodically, rather than in real-time. The result? Not a seamless flow of information and a poorer experience for your riders.

Why Do Agencies Choose Interfacing Instead of Integration?

A lot of times, they had no choice! Proprietary interfaces have been the norm up until just recently. In addition, the reality of investing in an entire end-to-end solution all at once isn’t practical and is cost prohibitive.

As a result, agencies often have to interface their legacy products with new products from different companies. But when new versions and capabilities become available, you end up with increased overall costs as you now have to rebuild those old bridges and create new ones too.

Ultimately, as the legacy software ages, it becomes even less flexible and even more expensive to interface new products until it finally becomes obsolete.

Fueling the Future: Integration in IT Architecture

With the day-to-day interplay of customer service, operations and maintenance, dispatch, and everything in-between, your transit network’s growth and functionality has a lot to do with its ability to play nice with others.

Technology is changing lives and transforming business across every sector. We all need to ensure that strong and flexible integration capabilities are there so that we can not only get the most out of our current solution investments today, but also ensure better longevity into the future.

I recently hosted a webinar to help you learn more about the difference between integration vs. interfacing, the real-life implications for your business, and what the future holds. Catch the recording here.


 
Nick Ross has over 10 years of experience in the public transportation industry and has worked with over 40 large scale transit agencies successfully delivering multi-million dollar advanced transportation systems across North America. As the Industry Solutions Manager for Intelligent Transportation Systems, Nick strives to share his transit knowledge, expertise, and experience throughout the North American Transportation industry.
 
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