A Case for Open Data in Transit
Ever find yourself waiting for the next bus, not knowing when it will arrive? Think it would be great if you could check a subway countdown clock from the sidewalk? Or get arrival times on your phone? Giving transit riders better information can make riding the bus or the train more convenient and appealing. And transit agencies are finding that the easiest and least expensive way to do it is by opening data about routes, schedules, and real-time locations to software developers, instead of guarding it like a proprietary secret.
I recently got the chance to dive into the topic of open data in transit with my colleagues at OpenPlans. We went up to Boston to see what transit riders got out of the transportation department's decision to open up its data. We also talked to New York MTA Chair Jay Walder, City Council Member Gale Brewer, Zipcar co-founder Robin Chase, and Transportation Alternatives director Paul Steely White to paint a full picture of what it would mean if cities shared their transit and transportation data. The information is there, waiting to be put to use to help people plan transit trips, waste less gas driving, or make their streets safer.
Nick Grossman: [00:03] Transportation’s a natural for open data efforts to take route in cities because transportation touches everybody’s lives everyday. It’s how we get around, it’s how we get from home to work.
Chris Dempsey: [00:18] So think about all the different ways that you can find out whether it’s going to rain that day, or what the temperature’s going to be the next day. You can get it on TV, on the radio, on the internet, you can get it on your smartphone and you never have to pay for it. And the reason that that’s true is because the National Weather Service is open. Transit agencies have been very hesitant to share that information with third parties. They’ve always felt like they have to be the primary source of information for riders. But if you take the model of the National Weather Service and you apply it to transit agencies, you realise that you can have just as many options to get transit information as you do to get weather information. And the beauty of it is that it’s no cost for the transit agencies.
Chris Dempsey: [00:57] So we opened up our data and we’ve started sharing it with developers, and within hours of sharing that data, developers had taken it and built iPhone applications, websites, phone numbers, text messaging services, that allow our riders to know where their bus is and when it’s going to pick them up.
Nick Grossman: [01:20] All of the events that we’ve seen in transportation open data recently plug into a larger conversation that’s happening in the country about Government 2.0. One of the most vocal proponents is Tim O’Reilly who talks about government as a platform.
Tim O’Reilly: [01:32] Gov. 2 0 is the use of web 2 0 technologies, like cloud computing, social media, open data, by government. Government should think of itself as the platform that society builds on, rather than government as a vending machine of actual service delivery. The idea of being a platform provider is you do the least possible, not the most possible, to enable others to build on what you do. In this transportation space, it has to do with thinking about what steps can be taken that will then let private individuals, private companies, actually deliver additional services to the public.
Chris Dempsey: [02:19] We’re at J.P. Licks which is a great ice-cream store and coffee shop in the heart of Jamaica Plain. Right out front the 39 bus goes by, inbound and outbound. And what we have here today is we have the LED sign that a third party developer installed at J.P. Licks that tells you when the next bus is going to go by in each direction. We now know that we have, you know, two minutes until the next bus is going to come.
Joshua Robin: [02:39] One of the most popular apps for bus riders here in Boston is an app called Catch The Bus. You click on the app and it loads for you a list of all the routes. We’re taking the 39 outbound, and there it is, it tells you the next bus is going to come in eight minutes. Buses are always more confusing than trains because there’s not a track there, it’s not as obvious. When you see it on an app like this and you can interact with it, it makes the bus something real and something really easy to understand.
Chris Dempsey: [03:02] Transit agencies traditionally think that it’s always their responsibility to get this information out, and it can be a big hurdle because of the organisational challenges and the financial challenges that we face. It’s nice to have a team of literally hundreds of developers out there who are thinking about these questions.
Nick Grossman: [03:18] Up until recently the MTA in New York was the largest transit agency that did not publish open data.
Nicholas Bergson-Shilcock: [03:24] Last year, the way you got data from the MTA was you either went onto their website and through a process which is called Scraping, tried to take it off and put it into a useful format, or you submitted a foil request and you got a CD, and you don’t know if that data was up-to-date, and the format of the data on that CD was hard to use and undocumented.
Nick Grossman: [03:44] And over the past few months that’s changed. In January they launched a developer centre and an open data program and recently they had their first developer’s conference.
Jay Walder: [03:54] The Unconference is really about harnessing the power of applications developers. The MTA has for too long really pushed the development community away, and this conference today is really about embracing the development community, about finding ways to be able to work with them, and about allowing them to bring the type of creativity and innovation that they’ve brought into so many other areas into our transit system as well.
Nicholas Bergson-Shilcock: [04:14] It’s a night and day difference from last year when developers were being sued for using this data, to this year where the MTA is encouraging developers to use this data.
Nick Grossman: [04:24] Public transit is just a piece of the urban transportation network. There’s incredibly interesting data being produced by all sorts of other modes, including private cars.
Robin Chase: [04:31] In cars there’s a whole bunch of data that’s being generated that is now going into the wind. It’s uncollected, and today we could be providing that information. Imagine how much innovation we would get if there were an open black box in cars. So car sharing would be one application. Better routing would be another. Tell me how good a driver I am, what my fuel efficiency is would be another one. And there’s a whole number of applications that I can think of some, but more to the point, there are thousands of people out there who could think up tens of thousands more.
Nick Grossman: [05:03] Open data can even be used to help us make our streets safer.
Paul Steely White: [05:07] It is imperative that moving forward we have more information about the extent of the traffic safety problem in New York City. Right now the public thinks that injuries and fatalities on New York City streets are isolated accidents. With more open and timely information about these crashes, it will be much easier to show everyone that these are preventable tragedies that are occurring, and that there are clusters of these tragedies that are occurring precisely on streets that need better enforcement and better street design.
Gale A. Brewer: [05:35] The fact of the matter is when the data is public, really smart people who want to take it and make an application can do so. And then I think by definition force government to be more efficient.
[05:49] And when you think of government as a platform rather than as
a service provider, then what you are doing is you’re creating the
capabilities for the people to say “we did it ourselves”.
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