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Global Development Institute

Big Data and Urban Transportation in India: A Bengaluru Bus Corporation Case Study

Vanya Rakesh, Richard Heeks, Sumandro Chattapadhyay & Christopher Foster


As cities grow, urban transportation is becoming an issue of increasing salience.  Simultaneously, big data systems are being introduced into urban transport.  This paper analyses the early days of the big data system introduced by India’s Bengaluru Metropolitan Transport Corporation, which runs the city’s 6,000-plus buses.  This has three main components: automated vehicle tracking and electronic ticketing machines which generate gigabytes of data per day, and a linked passenger information system with mobile app.  Field interviews and document analysis were used to assess the system.

Only an early, partial and contingent assessment can be given because the system had only been implemented for little over a year.  It does work in terms of gathering data and informing both management and passengers, though there are some operational flaws still to be ironed out.  Substantive contribution of tactical and strategic value has yet to be seen: it seems easier to apply data-intensity to operational than higher-level managerial processes.  However, there is already a sense in which big data is changing both the image of the organisation, and the “imaginary” of politicians and managers: the new view of urban transport systems that big data makes visible.  As a result of the latter, plans for removal of bus conductors and of layers of middle management are well advanced.

We also see signs of big data enabling shifts in power: from labour to management, from middle to top management, and potentially towards those with data-related capabilities.  There is some greater transparency of organisational activities to the general public, but wider transparency awaits full and sustained opening of transport data to other users.


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Educators’ guide

Synopsis questions


1.     What are the basic parameters of BMTC and ITS?  [Section A]

2.     What past digital systems have been used in relation to public transport in Karnataka?  [Section B1]

3.     Who are the main actors involved with ITS?  [Section B2]

4.     What are the main technical components of the ITS?  [Section C]

5.     What resistance has been experienced to ITS implementation?  [Section D]

6.     What value has ITS contributed at operational, tactical and strategic levels?  [Section E]

7.     How has big data intersected with power and politics in relation to BMTC?  [Section F]


Development questions

1.     In what sense is this a big data case?

2.     Are there particular features of the transport sector which shape the findings from this case study?

3.     How legitimate is it to draw conclusions on the basis of a case study with only nine interviews?

4.     What conclusions would you draw from this case for the implementation of “smart transport” applications?

5.     What advice would you offer to a big data practitioner on the basis of this case study?

6.     Which is most important in shaping the outcomes in this case: data, technology, or people?

7.     What are the wider development implications of the shifts in power seen as big data is introduced?