Devin de Vries, CEO at WhereIsMyTransport offers his thoughts on why better information holds the power to transform and accelerate transport innovation, especially in emerging markets.
To the casual observer, it might seem that little in transport has changed over the past decade. The modes people use today to move around the city are still largely the same as they have been for years, with the notable addition of eBikes and eScooters in many cities. Many of the issues faced 10 years ago—congestion, pollution, and long commutes—are also the same. In fact, in many cities (even in rapidly advancing emerging markets) those problems are only worse.
But there’s also a lot that’s improved. A decade ago, Uber was still in its infancy, the on-demand ride-sharing boom was still gathering momentum, and on-demand food and parcel delivery was a long way off. And then there’s the smartphone. Nothing has had more of an impact on mobility in cities everywhere than this pocket-sized information portal, enabled by rapidly growing bandwidth and powered by a tsunami of data: new data, real-time data, open data, crowd-sourced data; all kinds of data that continuously and relentlessly transforms ways of life for citizens, governments, small businesses, and conglomerates.
And the transformation is accelerating, particularly in emerging markets. The next 10 years will bring even more technologically driven change. Developments in Web3 and open data standardisation will bring new business models, widespread application of AI will enable new commuter experiences, and improved data availability in emerging markets will unlock new high-growth regions. Our post-COVID business reality, and our changing climate, will continue to accelerate innovation.
Advancements will impact cities in emerging markets and the developed world alike. After all, wherever you are in the world, the principle remains the same: people and economies need mobility. That could be someone commuting to work, or someone making a delivery. Whatever the background, the movement of something is common across developed and emerging markets. This means there are things we can learn from both markets.
Of course, it’s difficult to predict exactly what will change in the future: a look back at any predictions from 10 or 20 years ago would undoubtedly reveal a mix of some things that came true and some that didn’t. To paraphrase Bill Gates, we often overestimate what we can achieve in a year, but woefully underestimate what will change in a decade. That said, these exercises still have value, and a look back at the past decade can give us a reasonable idea of how technology will impact movement, place, and growth in emerging markets over the next 10 years. More importantly, we can get a feeling for what the future might look like if all the stakeholders involved work together.
Lessons from the past
There are several major lessons from the evolution of both technology and mobility over the past 10 years that are likely to have an impact on their collective futures in both developed and emerging markets.
The first is that user-contributed data long-ago transformed navigation for private vehicles. The navigation app you rely on to show you the fastest route to your destination, avoiding traffic snarl-ups along the way, relies on user data (along with machine learning, historical traffic patterns, and local government data). Some services also integrate user-contributed reviews, photographs, and Points of Interest (POI), ensuring that people not only get to the right places but also get the best value out of the places they go to.
For the most part, however, this kind of data has primarily benefited people driving private vehicles or those using formal public transport and urban services (especially in developed markets). But in emerging markets, that’s not the reality for most people.
Every day, billions of people in the Majority World rely on public transport—a combination of formal and informal mobility options—to get where they need to go. In the case of the former, schedules sometimes only exist in theory. Most formal bus services use the same road networks as everyone else and are subject to traffic, road closures, and other disruptions. The situation is amplified for informal public transport, which operates dynamically and, at times, unpredictably. All of this means that commuting, already a difficult and time-consuming task in many emerging-market cities, can become incredibly uncertain. This level of uncertainty is only magnified when a natural or man-made disaster occurs. And in an era of climate change, those kinds of disruptive disasters will become increasingly commonplace.
In that kind of environment, real-time information and data can be critical. That’s because disruptions typically create an information gap that technology is well-positioned to fill.
We’ve seen this first-hand. In Mexico City, for example, our Android app Rumbo proved to be indispensable for the public-transport commuters who use it when fires caused the closure of six Metro lines across the city. Rumbo’s real-time alerts were the fastest, most accurate updates for those trying to figure out how to get around the many problems caused by the fires. Nothing else—even official information sources—came close.
Not too long ago, the slower uptake of smartphones in emerging markets would’ve made gathering and dispersing that information difficult. That’s no longer the case and will be even less so in the future. In 2019, for example, smartphone ownership was at 60% in Mexico and is expected to reach 70% by 2025. In Thailand meanwhile, smartphone ownership rates were at 77% in 2020 and are expected to reach 84% by 2026—and these figures are even higher in metropolitan areas.
Of course, understanding the nuances in emerging markets requires more than just getting a grip on smartphone penetration rates. Every country is different. So is every city. At WhereIsMyTransport, we’ve learned this from the almost-50 cities we’ve mapped across the Majority World. Any business looking to tap into high-growth emerging markets will find their task made much easier—and more fruitful—by teaming up with a trusted and experienced partner.
The past decade has also shown us that most people thought the best use of public transport data was solving public transport problems; that location data is only about location. But the potential of data goes far beyond the obvious. We understand the use cases, and have applied this to help many clients by providing the critical data they require. What it’s taught us is you don’t need to know every use case. You just need to know that your data offering is the highest quality available. High-quality data is fuel for the innovations you know about, and the ones you’re yet to discover.
Web3 business models
The advent of Web3 will enable even more new and exciting business opportunities. Web3 revolves around the idea of a decentralised internet, which is sharply different to Web 2.0, where the vast majority of the web’s data and content is owned by a relatively small group of companies. While there are different visions for what Web3 might look like, almost every version is predicated on applying blockchain technologies.
Unfortunately, many of the loudest proponents of Web3 to date have been crypto-centric, detracting from the deeper understanding of how these technologies will shape the times we live in. Much like the advent of the internet, industry and societal understanding of Web 3 is still at its earliest stages.
Precedent suggests the earliest use cases for each iteration of the web are not what sees it truly take off. Sir Tim Berners Lee developed the World Wide Web as an easy way for scientists to access each other’s work. He could hardly have imagined that it would one day be used to radicalise a cohort of people who once warned their children not to trust everything they read online.
Similarly, the true potential of Web3 is still in discovery. Developed properly, Web3 could improve data security, scalability, and privacy beyond what’s currently possible on today’s Web 2.0 platforms. Moreover, its decentralised nature means that it’s possible to find entirely new ways of funding and governing the ongoing development of projects. It’s also possible to ensure that these project builds are entirely transparent and that anyone who believes in them can participate.
Like Web3, mobility services in emerging markets are highly decentralised. They represent a resilient and fragmented network of independent service providers and small business owners. Given this innate decentralisation, the application of Web3 technologies represents a substantial opportunity. This could include secure offline ticket payments using blockchain wallets, NFT transit passes in MaaS deployments, royalties for user-generated content via smart contracts, or clearer data ownership rights. The applications are broad and we are only just scratching the surface of what’s possible. This evolution in technology is not just a business opportunity, but something that can give emerging markets a leg up.
Certainly, Web3 will bring new challenges for technologists and businesses, and great opportunities in the years ahead. When it comes to mobility and location data in particular, it’ll be important to establish what happens to ownership and where the benefit goes from mastering business operations alongside these changes.
At WhereIsMyTransport, we are working to make that real. After all, we’ve built a business operating in decentralised environments, with products and processes designed to be permissionless, and we’ve learned how to turn idiosyncrasies into advantages.
Shaping a bolder future
That many of the coming technological changes look set to mirror the on-the-ground situation in emerging markets bodes well for the future. This is especially true when you consider the impact some other nascent technologies will have on movement and place in these markets.
Edge data and deep tech, including machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) will make it easier for those in both the formal and informal economies. Transport operators will have the data they need to optimise routes and operations to more closely resemble demand patterns; traders and investors will have the location data they need to make location-aware decisions. This will also further empower citizens to make the most valuable decisions, particularly when there’s a disruption to their normal routine. For the most part, these technologies will be so integrated into everyday products that people won’t even notice them as they reap the benefits.
It’s also important to remember that these changes are happening in a post-COVID reality that’s impacted emerging markets at least as profoundly as developed markets. The decisions businesses have made now—such as whether to be fully remote, hybrid, or return to the office—have affected, and will continue to affect, hiring, operations, culture, and investment.
Changes to the way people move have prompted changes in the mobility technology sector. Companies are capitalising on the opportunity associated with applying their technologies to public transport, often for the first time. Others are broadening platform capabilities in an effort to gain a larger portion of the route-planning pie.
For all, strategic flexibility and adaptation is made easier when the right data and technologies are in place.
Ultimately, the combination of all these factors means substantial growth opportunities in emerging markets. But making the most of those opportunities benefits from collaboration between all stakeholders, from the individual citizen upwards. And those who get it right stand to reap serious benefits across the board. There is so much more we can make of the infrastructure we already have, and the communities who use them. When technology and incentives align, we unlock the valuable potential in our networks today.
Even in the midst of growth and change, there are things that will remain constant.
What motivates us at WhereIsMyTransport is unlikely to change much in the future. We believe that better information holds the power to transform, and has the most value when the primary benefactor is the citizen, or society. Dignity, quality of life, and sustainability are all made possible by better data, and by projects that are more successful thanks to better data. That will matter as much in the coming decade as it does today.