For Provider Participants: Communications

Build common formats for exchanging transportation data

One of the challenges to coordinating operations between human service transportation providers and MSO/VSO transportation providers is the lack of easy mechanisms for being able to send trip request or vehicle availability information between providers. Aside from phone calls and faxes, there is no straightforward and secure means to communicate between systems unless perhaps the providers are using the same scheduling & dispatch software.

Building a lingua franca for exchanging data veterans’ transportation needs would go a long way towards lowering the barrier to coordination. Aside from the technical details of file formats and specifying how the machine-to-machine communication would work, I think on the human side the nitty-gritty of this would involve attending to the details finding common terminology for what we do and achieving a deep understanding of one another’s operations.

This has largely been accomplished in the fixed-route world with such services as Google Transit and Bing Transit, which both use the General Transit Feed Specification to describe bus routes. I would love to see an equivalent set of tools developed in the demand-response transportation world, something that providers and software vendors can coalesce around.

Coordinating operations can be challenging in general because it involves so many moving parts. Getting this basic communication piece in place would better position us to tackle those other barriers.


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  1. Comment


    First,thanks for such a well-presented statement of the issue.

    Second, a question based directly on the text of your comment: Do you have suggestions for how an equivalent [to what exists in fixed-route world] set of tools can be developed in the demand-response transportation world around which providers and software vendors can coalesce?

    Third, question related to VTCLI (Veterans Transportation Community Living Initiative) grants. Do you have any suggestions on how the work of VTCLI grantees could help in developing knowledge that can get us closer to developing your the lingua franca on exchanging about veterans transportation needs that you believe can help to lower barriers to coordination?


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    1. Comment
      Kevin Chambers ( Idea Submitter )

      Hi Jane--

      Google was the pivotal force in the development of the GTFS (it was originally called the Google Transit Feed Spec), and for better or worse, we’re not likely to have a Google-like force to step in and drive development of a spec for us. To advance such a project in our situation, I think it’s going to take a lot of stakeholders getting on the same page. To me that means it’ll probably be a somewhat nonlinear process. The general scenario that I see most likely to succeed is one where, with resource- and facilitation-level support at the state and (particularly) federal levels, the agencies that need the specific functionality that a lingua franca would offer take the lead and proactively engage with their software vendors with how they want their systems to interoperate.

      One challenge is that while the software vendors have the great bulk of the technical talent to carry out what’s needed, they are constrained in developing a common data formats by their competitive relationships with one another and by the fact that the vision for broad coordination really needs to come from the agencies and their funders. For a wide range of reasons, up to now interoperability between different platforms has not been established as a high (enough) priority in the industry so as to get the results I think we need.

      From my perspective, the VTCL Initiative has appeared at precisely the right moment to serve as a catalyst to turn a lot of this around. Prior to the VTCLI, we at Ride Connection had been developing a project to create a demand-response transportation “clearinghouse” to connect us with other providers in our area that use different software from our own. That project relied on having SOME sort of common means of data exchange, one that we hoped might gain some broader traction, but we had no clear way to bring it to others.

      When we learned about the VTCLI funding opportunity, we saw the chance to expand that vision to include local VSOs. We’ve been awarded a VTCLI grant based on that vision and have been using the grant as an opportunity to engage with the FTA and fellow grantees on how to solve some of the thornier problems of coordination. At two recent conferences (the mobility management conference in Long Beach CA and the CTAA Expo in Baltimore) we’ve participated in conversations about data sharing that I’m certain would not be happening if it weren’t for the initiative. I’m very heartened and excited by it all, because I think we may now have the conditions where a committed and inclusive group can come up with an initial specification for these tools. This may be our chance to seize the moment and solve one piece of the larger coordination puzzle.

  2. Comment

    I believe that the time is now to solve the data sharing issue. We can do so much more to develop commuting services that work for veterans and the rest of us.

  3. Comment


    Thank you for all the good information in your response, especially the information about the opportunities for new opportunities for coordination and information sharing that the Fed Transit Admin's VTCLI grants to create one-call centers for veterans have created.

    This morning at the monthly meeting of Technical Assistance Facilitators for VTCLI grantees, Larry Harman talked about the sharing of information and ideas already going on and discussions on how some of the grantees (Ride Connection was one he mentioned)are talking about to create the means for call centers to talk to each other. I mentioned your initial comment on this Online Dialogue and suggested they look at it.

  4. Comment

    Here here! Some of us who have been discussing this for a while see opportunities on at least a few fronts:

    1) Collaborating on Resource Directories: A number of agencies are developing dynamic online resource directories. Several of those that have been built so far were built in isolation and rely on proprietary platforms. The lessons learned in coding basic information structures like the service area of a demand responsive service, or the pricing structures of various human service transportation programs have not always been documented or recorded for others' benefit. Yet, essentially every ITS application for human service and veterans transportation programs will need to solve these problems. Without collaboration, there is a risk that the VTCLI investment will result in redundant problem solving. So, one opportunity is to provide a clearinghouse or data dictionary for data structures that support basic resource directories. This will also help in the establishment of the underlying databases that support one-call/one-click services.

    2) Inter-agency trip referrals & exchanges: A number of the VTCLI recipients have identified a need for systems that provide a level of inter-platform communication between local agency scheduling systems. This will require common data standards and may necessitate development of middleware for data integration. Ride Connection is currently pursuing a project to accomplish this. It would be fantastic if other VTCLI recipients can learn from and perhaps contribute to the thinking that goes into the trip exchange data structures and protocols being developed by Ride Connection so that lessons learned can be adapted broadly for many VTCLI recipients and others.

    3) Open Source: I'm hopeful that by opening up the data standards dialogue, the VTCLI investment will encourage participation from the open source software community so that public investments in source code can be made available for broad public benefit.

    Given that VA will be hosting the upcoming Open Source conference in Washington D.C. (, it appears the time is right for this dialogue!