How Big Data Is Helping Transform Indonesia’s Public Transport System

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Valerie Julliand, Pungky Sumadi and Petrarca Karetji

The original version of this article was published in the Jakarta Post on August 19, 2021 and is accessible through this link.

The affordability of public transport in Indonesia makes it the go-to option for millions of citizens. But for some passengers, such as women, the elderly and people with disabilities, the journey is not always seamless. For instance, the lack of barrier-free walkways and other elderly-friendly infrastructure often makes movement between the waiting area and boarding point challenging for elderly passengers.

Understanding the diverse needs of Indonesia’s passengers is crucial to operating an inclusive transport system. But until recently, obtaining deep insights into rider experience involved prohibitive time and resource costs. That’s especially the case across a geography as complex as Indonesia’s, an archipelago of more than 17,000 islands that spans three time zones.

Today, technologies such as smart cards and online ticketing offer an efficient means of gathering big data on riders’ travel patterns and behavior on public transport. Disaggregating that data — filtering it by categories that can reflect experiences by gender, age, ethnicity or marginalized groups, amongst others — can inform a more people-centric approach to transport. Making transport more inclusive is good for business, but it also accelerates progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals.

“Apart from having to generate profits, BUMN [state-owned enterprises] must also become agents of development,” Erick Thohir, the Indonesian Minister for State Owned Enterprises, said in his keynote speech at this year’s UN Global Compact Leaders’ Summit in June. “Their mission is to specifically serve the Indonesian people and protect their welfare.”

The recent data analytics research collaboration between the UN Global Pulse office in Jakarta (Pulse Lab Jakarta), the Ministry of National Development Planning (Bappenas), and PT Kereta Api Indonesia (KAI), Indonesia’s national railway company is part of this mission. The collaboration sought to use big data to better understand the behavior and needs of PT KAI’s customer base, and especially the needs of vulnerable populations who use its railway. The scale and reach of PT KAI — which has been serving the Indonesian public since 1945 and operates across Java and Sumatra — means that enhancing its service offering not only improves social welfare, it also helps grow the economy in some of Indonesia’s most densely populated regions.

The pandemic has impacted human mobility across the country’s archipelago, particularly given the recent expansion of COVID-19 related restrictions on movement in some provinces.

Transport services that are safer, more efficient, and more inclusive can play a vital role in the ability of the population to get back to work after the pandemic. But making transport more inclusive in Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous country, is a logistically complex undertaking. Almost 50% of Indonesia’ population are women, more than 16 million citizens are above the age of 64, and more than 20 million are people with disabilities. A recovery from the socio-economic impacts of the pandemic requires improved access to economic opportunities for all.

Through our collaborative research that analyzed big data garnered from users of PT KAI’s services in 2019, we found that half of all passengers that year were female, with a significant number of them travelling in the evening hours. Furthermore, whilst more than 1.5 million trips were completed by passengers over 60 years old in 2019, the data shows that only 4% of elderly passengers used the Government’s travel subsidy. PT KAI and the Government have since been raising public awareness of this subsidy, as well as simplifying the process for travelers wishing to avail themselves of it.

Our research shows that both women and the elderly face certain challenges in transit and require assistance and supportive infrastructure to improve their comfort and safety. Pulse Lab and UN Women’s prior 2019 After Dark social research, which sought to understand how women in Indonesia navigate public transport, indicated that women’s consideration of safety is complex — existing on a spectrum rather than being a dichotomy of safe or unsafe. Still, the After Dark research suggests the quality of public infrastructure, efficiency of transport services, and women’s own sense of familiarity with their surroundings all factored into women’s experience of travelling at night.

We are pleased that the recommendations from the After Dark research are being taken up by both city governments as well as transport ride-hailing services. The insights from that research have been helping Indonesia’s national railway company identify potential levers for improving service delivery to increase ridership across all its passengers. This includes combining data insights to identify and promote routes with low ridership, particularly for subsidized passengers who may prefer less hectic and crowded conditions.

Disaggregated data is already yielding benefits for PT KAI and for Indonesia. But we realize that more needs to be done. One area where we are very much lacking in good data is related to people with disabilities. PT KAI is committed to catering to the unique needs of people with disabilities and is looking into more systematically capturing the right data points on the use of its services amongst passengers in this group to better understand those needs.

Catering to vulnerable passengers is not only a business imperative, it also produces a host of positive outcomes linked to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

More attractive public transport means fewer people using private cars, for example. That in turn reduces economic losses from congestion and pollution, leading to better public health. Meanwhile, better access to safe and efficient transport helps vulnerable populations to lead more independent lives and build a more mobile labor force.

That has never been more urgent. As Indonesia seeks to recover from the unprecedented impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, Pulse Lab Jakarta’s collaboration with Bappenas and PT KAI is an exemplar of how the public and private sector can employ disaggregated data to build a more inclusive, sustainable, and people-centered economy.

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