Every business unit at Deutsche Bahn has its own treasure trove of data that can be used for a wide variety of purposes. In cooperation with customers and developers, DB Systel was recently exploring potential ways to get more out of these valuable archives for the good of the Group. The Group-wide data portal at data.deutschebahn.com was already established last year as a joint project involving Skydeck and DB mindbox.
In this scenario, the Group’s various areas (including DB Long Distance, DB Station&Service and DB Connect) serve as sources of data. They supply open data sets on train stations, lifts, operating locations – and timetables, as well. This benefits those who participate in hackathons, for example, because they can easily access the different sets to realise their ideas. However, many developers want to be able to draw upon both static and dynamic data.
Application programming interfaces (APIs) have been fulfilling this need in the world of IT for some time now, but the ability to provide access to data and services online through modern web APIs is a more recent innovation. “In essence, Open API is a platform that supports secure data transfers from within DB to external recipients,” explains DB Systel’s Tobias Friedrich. “It also serves as an interface for exchanging data within the Group.” Meanwhile, functions that enable developers to oversee, control and organise programming interfaces while communicating with one another are just as important a component of Open API. Through the portal, modern web APIs are now being provided in a self-service format. Open API thus represents the natural addition of open programming interfaces to OpenData. The aim is to provide the most current information possible in order to offer seat reservations, tickets and other services in connection with a payment model.
A growing catalogue
This platform is the result of a proactive development effort by DB Systel that also sought to move the digitalisation process forward within the Group. As Deutsche Bahn’s digital partner, one of DB Systel’s main tasks is providing customers with integrative, value-generating recommendations and introducing them to business models made possible by data and APIs in a provider-agnostic fashion. During the portal’s technical implementation, the focus was on giving developers simple access to the APIs on offer. An integrated catalogue enables them to see at a glance which corporate divisions provide access to data and APIs. Once developers choose an API, they can call up all of the corresponding functions (including various parameters) directly with an integrated test console – that is, even before they adapt the interface to their own purposes.
In short, the platform offers an array of advantages to customers. “Having a common platform makes individual business units and their products a lot more visible,” Friedrich points out. In one example, DB Station&Service had already started a project to equip all of its lifts with sensors and wanted to publish the data under an open-source licence. The possibilities the platform provides won the customer over more or less immediately. Developed by a DB Systel employee, the application “Aufzugswächter”, or “Lift Monitor”, became the first interface offered by the new Open API platform. This service tracks the operating state of each of the 2,000 lifts that provide corresponding data through the API in question and sends e-mails or push notifications directly to subscribers’ smartphones whenever the status of a lift changes. This eventually resulted in a corresponding open API, which interested developers can now find on the platform – and use for their own projects. For Georg Gilhaus from DB Station&Service, the successful implementation of the API is only the first step: “It definitely gives you a taste for more. In the future, we’ll be looking to make further progress in a number of different directions. For example, project managers should be able to call up usage statistics on their respective services whenever they like,” he explains. This would then provide information on available resources – and indicate whether such service capacities are sufficient.
An easy way to get started on innovative developments
With the Open API platform, the developer community now has a central hub for accessing current and future programming interfaces. It could hardly be easier for developers to make use of Deutsche Bahn’s APIs. Above all, however, making these open interfaces available gives DB the opportunity to enhance the “Deutsche Bahn experience” with new and innovative traveller services. Those who provide APIs can also reach out to external developers directly in order to accommodate suggestions and requests in short order, which tends to extend an API’s useful life. Meanwhile, feedback from the developer community indicates which APIs are popular and considered important. The DB OpenDatagraph website also offers constant access to refined data on the projects and prototypes that use certain data and APIs, along with the respective purpose.
Plans are in place to extend the API management platform to include internal APIs, as well. In the future, the platform could also enable Deutsche Bahn to give select partners access to APIs pertaining to their business – or restrict certain DB interfaces to internal purposes. While the provision of the API platform is just the first step, the more than 180 developers who have already registered to use it show that it was a successful one. Demand will also continue to rise; after all, APIs form part of the basis of the ongoing integration taking place within the context of digital transformation. Georg Gilhaus agrees: “Having to worry about general issues like authorisation or security for each individual back end every single time is complete nonsense. It’s essential that we use the Open API platform for these purposes,” he asserts.