Leading from the front
Open specifications, open source and open data for the Norwegian Public Roads Administration, by Eirik Skjetne and Hans Westerheim.
Norway is a relatively small country and therefore offers a small market for the ITS industry. This has led to monopolistic developments in the supplier market. The major suppliers easily become dominant in the market and it becomes very hard for new and smaller competitors to secure contracts. These are unwanted market conditions and can lead to an increase in the prices.
The Norwegian Public Roads Administration (NPRA) is responsible for the planning, construction and operation of the national and major urban road networks including information services and all traffic management. Management of the national legal framework and recommendations for road transport are also under the responsibility of the NPRA.As the main buyer of ITS and other road equipment in Norway, NPRA is responsible for supporting and developing a sound and competitive market with fair prices. The underlying challenge in doing this is a combination of a lack of competence on the buyers’ side and the fact that the total size of the market is too small to be interesting for suppliers.
NPRA has developed different approaches to meet these challenges:
- Using open standards and international standardisation, on the one hand
- Developing a national set of specifications, on the other.
When the international market becomes mature it normally also develops either common international standards (CEN, ISO etc) or de facto industry standards that are used by the industry. The market is international and the prices are set internationally. The whole industry normally supports the solutions and the interfaces, which again is securing interoperability between solutions from the different suppliers.
The standardisation process is however extensive and often very slow. Experience has shown that it cannot keep up with the fast pace of development of new technology. To meet this challenge it is helpful for the buyers to define their own specifications. The specification might be technically very specific, but such specifications are not normally open for the required innovation. One might end up buying the technology of yesterday. Therefore functional specifications are preferable; i.e. NPRA describes the objectives including all necessary interfaces leaving the technical solutions to the industry.
These open solutions (using open standards and international standardisation and development of a national set of specifications) have been tried out in Norway. NPRA started the development of electronic tags for tolling in 1986. The need came from the introduction of urban tolling schemes. The development of the system was carried out by the Norwegian company MicroDesign AS (known since 1998 as Q-Free ASA).
It was technically a very advanced system, but there was only one supplier of the system. Some years later, the new 5.8GHz DSRC standard was approved in CEN. NPRA decided to convert all Norwegian tolling systems to the new standard. This was put in practice with the development of a new national specification for electronic tolling, AutoPASS. AutoPASS is a detailed technical specification for tolling systems including tags, roadside equipment and back-office processing. The specification is open, but owned by NPRA. It has led to the development of a tolling equipment market with several competitive suppliers and a substantial decrease in prices. As such this has been a success story, but the AutoPASS specification is not open for much innovation and new technologies. This is the drawback with detailed technical demands in the standard.
In another project, NPRA has worked together with the other Nordic countries (Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Iceland) to develop a common technology for traffic monitoring, the NORSIKT-project. One major reason for the project was to open the market for this kind of equipment. Each country had developed its own equipment in the 1980-90. By cooperating in common specifications and testing procedures the countries wanted to establish a substantially larger market for suppliers of traffic monitoring equipment. These specifications are functional and only describe monitoring demands and interfaces that the equipment must fulfil.
Last year Norway launched the first tender for a new generation monitoring equipment based on this specification. The experience so far is that the prices have dropped by nearly 50 per cent.
Overall interoperability framework
To secure interoperability and reuse of equipment NPRA has been engaged in developing a reference system architecture, or an overall framework for interoperability. The ARKTRANS framework was developed as a multi-modal framework to support the development of ITS systems in 1999. There has been great interest in this framework and it has been really helpful in defining overall and generic roles and responsibility related to ITS. Attempts to use the framework as a supporting tool also in commercial projects and product development have been done with varying success. The framework has proven good in system development in R&D-projects, but it has been difficult to convert this to detailed technical system design.
One of the main challenges is to be able to relate the overall definitions supporting interoperability to the needs present when working with technical interoperability. NPRA has realised that the technical development itself will remain outside the control of NPRA, and there is therefore a need to be able to link fast technology development with the more stable overall concepts and functions in the ARKTRANS framework.
NPRA has learned that both UK (UTMC) and German speaking countries (OCIT/OTS) have been working with national system specifications. The background being very much similar to the one described in Norway. The two national-oriented initiatives were launched over a decade ago to overcome the closed-system nature of traffic management and ITS. Polis, the European network of cities and regions for innovative transport solutions, invited both initiatives to a Polis members meeting in 2010 in order to learn more about them and to ascertain the interest of cities and regions elsewhere in Europe in the open systems approach. The meeting revealed that the problems of system fragmentation, vendor lock-in and market monopoly are widespread throughout the continent. This led to the POSSE project (www.openits-posse.eu) supported by the EU’s INTERREG IVC programme.
The main aim of POSSE is to raise awareness of the need for open specifications and standards and to share the experiences of existing open system frameworks in Europe. A central objective of the project is to build the capacity of transport authorities to implement open specifications and standards. In addition, POSSE is drawing up a good practice guide for the implementation of open specifications and standards.
Through its involvement in POSSE, NPRA is learning more about how to develop a common specification framework for ITS. There is a strong belief that the market for ITS will benefit greatly if Europe can develop common and open specifications. This will give more value for the taxpayer´s and road user´s money. NPRA’s main activity in POSSE involves defining and specifying the functionality of an ITS station with the help of ARKTRANS. Our main goal is that specifications for the ITS station should be compatible with the UTMC and OCIT/OTS specifications. The ITS station shall cover a wide range of uses: from quite simple data collection at the roadside to being an element in data distribution in cooperative systems. The expectation is that the ITS station will work well with open standards like OPC – UA (Open Processing Communication – Unified Architecture), and DATEX II, standards/specifications for data exchange between traffic centres, service providers, traffic operators and media partners.
The POSSE activity forms one of three core activities in the development of the ITS station. The other two main activities will be the definition of technology specifications inside the ITS station and the establishment of a structure/methodology linking architecture/framework and technology/ specifications closer together. The development work will include workshops coordinating the core activities and especially, of relevance to POSSE, workshops directly focusing on the framework/architecture. Representatives from the UK and German open systems frameworks will be involved in some of these workshops.
The way forward
Common open specifications and standards are important for deployment of ITS. The total public budget for ITS investments is relatively fixed at the moment. By opening up the ITS market, road authorities can install and develop more systems to the benefit of the transport sector. The work with open systems and specifications will therefore contribute strongly to the objectives of the European ITS Action Plan about faster deployment of ITS.
NPRA has defined this as an important element in the updated ITS strategy of 2012. We believe in cooperation to develop these open systems together with the supplier industry. A larger market will lead to greater innovation and utilisation of new technology and deliver better systems.
Eirik Skjetne is Head of ITS at the Norwegian Public Roads Administration
Hans Westerheim works at the Department of Software Engineering, Safety and Security at SINTEF