Open transport data in Germany? Not if you’re not Google

Deutsche Bahn, the German railway company, is entirely owned by the state. So you may think it reasonable that its timetable data should be freely available, in line with the open data trend that’s growing so quickly in Europe.

Think again. Not long ago, an enterprising group of open data enthusiasts calling themselves openPlanB (cheeky tagline: ‘innovation without permission’) got their hands on a CD-ROM containing station coordinates, bus and train schedules and so on. Having converted it to JSON, early this month they put all the data online in torrent form, under the Open Database License (ODbL).

Here’s an example of the neat stuff you can do with this data – just a pretty animation, but think of all the third-party apps that could benefit from the raw material:

The reaction hit on Friday, when Deutche Bahn sales chief Birgit Bohle published an open letter to openPlanB provocateur-in-chief Michael Kreil. The letter asserted that Kreil had broken the law by publishing the data under the ODbL, as he was not the copyright owner – Bohle said Kreil wouldn’t get sued this time, but would if he persisted.

The letter said Kreil had violated the rights of not only Deutsche Bahn, but also the third parties with which it has exclusive agreements. For that, read “Google”: the U.S. web giant launched its Transit service in Germany a couple of weeks ago, based on exactly the same data we’re talking about here.

Bohle also accused Kreil of giving open data a bad name, by fooling third-party developers into thinking the Deutsche Bahn data had been legally released under the ODbL, and also because that data would be out-of-date as soon as the timetables change.

Kreil, who has been working with the Sueddeutsche newspaper since early this year on an open, interactive transport map, told me today that he’s just trying to keep the public informed.

“We asked Deutsche Bahn to open up the timetables because they’re publicly available – they’re in every train station,” he said. “But they’re afraid that third-party developers will use poor routing algorithms and then the customers may blame Deutsche Bahn.”

The French and British are opening up their transport data, Kreil noted. He also pointed out that Deutsche Bahn does have its own navigation app, but “it’s really bad”, and also useless for those without an internet connection. Such as, er, people on many trains.

“Blind people also can’t use this application,” Kreil added. “We want to fix it for free for Deutsche Bahn.”

Of course, he also doesn’t want to get sued. And for that reason, he said, he’s looking into launching a crowdsourcing effort whereby people would keep the database up-to-date by simply checking their local timetables. Automatically scraping Deutsche Bahn’s website is another option, he added.

Deutsche Bahn may be correct in saying this data is legally off-limits, but this does seem an awful lot of trouble for someone who clearly just wants to help.