The Case for Open MTA Data: Transparency, Savings, and Easier Riding

portland_mobile_apps.jpgTransit riders in Portland have dozens of mobile applications at their disposal thanks to Tri-Met’s open data. New York’s ridership dwarfs Portland’s, but the MTA’s data policy stifles similar innovations.

Without good information for riders, transit systems don’t work very well. A subway station sans system map or a bus stop lacking a posted schedule perform terribly from a usability perspective. That’s why real-time bus information and subway countdown clocks have been getting so much play lately. They would give New York City transit riders extremely useful information that’s currently unavailable.

If you live in Portland, there are dozens of mobile applications that help fill gaps in transit information. You can check your phone to see when the next bus is supposed to come. You can plan a trip from one unfamiliar part of town to another. You can even have your mobile device buzz if you fall asleep before reaching your destination. For the basic stuff, there’s no iPhone necessary (although that certainly helps for information luxuries). Anyone who has a plain old cell phone with text messaging can ride the train or the bus with greater ease thanks to these apps.

"We’re not in the business
of selling our schedule info, we’ve always given out maps for free.
This is the same thing."

— Chris Dempsey, Massachusetts Executive Office of Transportation

Portland transit riders can choose from all those options because the local transit agency, Tri-Met, decided to open up their route, schedule and fare information to software developers. Dozens of transit agencies are making their services more attractive and rider-friendly this way, and the ones leading the pack share two things in common: They post current transit information in a format that’s easy for developers to use, and they make this data available for free under a simple licensing agreement. Riders in San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Boston, among other places, are reaping the benefits.

New Yorkers are still waiting for the MTA to join the club. Simply put, the MTA makes it difficult to create applications using its data, even for a behemoth like Google with enormous reach. Developers have to acquire information from hard copies — CDs — that can quickly become out of date. Google’s own online transit tools are riddled with information that went defunct months ago, like bus routes down Broadway’s pedestrian plazas.

Licensing agreements get hammered out one by one, and the MTA seeks a 10 percent royalty for any application that’s both sold at a profit and uses its maps and symbols. When talks break down, the resulting legal battle can turn ugly. Just ask Chris Schoenfeld, a developer and Metro-North rider who tussled with MTA intellectual property lawyers over the terms for distributing his mobile app, StationStops. A major point of contention: licensing fees and royalties.

Compared to cities leading the way on open transit data, where developers can agree to licenses with a few mouse-clicks, the MTA’s current practices stymie innovation. But all it would take is a few policy changes to score a quick and easy public relations victory for the MTA, saving money for the agency and improving the experience for riders.

To start with, the MTA can give developers a clear sense of how to team up with the agency. That’s one of the first things the Executive Office of Transportation in Massachusetts set out to do after deciding to open up its transit data earlier this year. "At the end of the day, it’s a symbiotic relationship," said Chris Dempsey, Assistant Secretary for Innovation and Project Development at the EOT, which made its transit data available at no cost to developers. "We thought developers
could see it was a good faith effort from us. We’re not in the business
of selling our schedule info, we’ve always given out maps for free.
This is the same thing."

The MTA says its licensing procedure is a safeguard to control quality. "The main purpose of the licensing program is to allow the MTA to establish a formal relationship with a developer that will enable us to work together to ensure that the data being presented is accurate," a spokesperson told Streetsblog. "Fees charged to for-profit developers are similar to those fees charged to any businesses that use MTA intellectual property, from tourist guidebook publishers to clothing merchants to home furnishings manufacturers."

Mobile applications, however, are a totally different beast than shower curtains printed with a subway map. When it comes to ensuring the quality of transit apps, nothing beats regularly updated data, posted online in a format developers can easily use. Without those conditions, it’s too onerous for developers to spend time crafting applications, and New York will never benefit from the same intense competition and innovation that other cities have fostered.

In Massachusetts, transit officials have embraced open data as a service enhancement for riders. "One of the things we’re excited about is the potential for increasing
ridership on bus lines, and getting people excited about riding buses," said Dempsey.
"These applications will give people more confidence that buses are
reliable."

In New York, a more open policy may be on the way. "In his confirmation hearings, incoming MTA Chairman and CEO Jay H. Walder said technology and transparency were among his top priority areas, so it is likely that there could be changes to our data policy in the relatively near future," the MTA spokesperson said. Walder will take the reins on October 5.

With a $10 billion hole in the MTA capital plan looming, Walder has lots of heavy lifting ahead, and he could use some quick PR victories to build momentum. On that score, open transit data is a triple play: It improves the experience for riders, makes the MTA more transparent, and cuts costs. (Think of all those hours the legal department spends on licensing talks.) Not a bad opening move for the next MTA chief to consider.

  • J:Lai

    Or what about the MTA partnering with developers. Instead of waiting 5 yrs for real-time bus arrival info at bus stops, the MTA could put GPS locators in the buses, make the data public, and let developers use it how they want. Seems like this would be faster and cheaper than the current method.

  • Outstanding article Ben, nails all of the latest concerns perfectly.

  • I’m surprised to say it, but Chicago actually seems to be ahead of the game on this one. The CTA may not be as large or as difficult to change as the MTA, but it is still the nation’s second-largest transit agency, so it’s impressive to see them implement these concepts. The CTA’s Bus Tracker now includes every bus line, and they’ve opened up the tracking data to developers with a new API. There were already some good mobile applications out there for finding next bus times, but I hope the official API will make it easier for more developers to create even better apps. One very cool example is a Chamber of Commerce that’s using the API and installing screens in storefronts showing next bus times. Great example of how open date empowers the community to meet rider needs that the agency doesn’t have resources to meet.

    http://www.transitchicago.com/news/default.aspx?ArticleId=2450

  • When decisions get made in a transparent city, we don’t call it Hierarchy. We call it Leadership.

    … paraphrasing Michael Idinopulos’ excellent post about how Transparency improves Decision making.
    http://michaeli.typepad.com/my_weblog/2009/09/transparency-not-anarchy.html

    This is the era where organizations in all sectors are coming around to realize benefits of openness. No better time than the present, we have many challenges ahead to deal with together, and a vital and informed city improves our chances of best outcomes.

  • Pete

    J:Lai has it right. The MTA should get out of the business of trying to present the data to the end user, and just provide it for others to access – e.g. real-time feeds of the GPS coordinates of all city buses, trains, etc. Give it to those people who can really make use of it & present it in useful form to the end user.

    For example, look at mint.com – They don’t actually handle any of your data, that’s all done by another company – Yodlee. Mint.com simply had a bunch of people who were really good at UI design.

  • @J:Lai and @Pete I agree that’s the right path to take. And a group of us is trying to do just what you suggested: Open up a constructive dialogue between the developer community and the MTA. Check out our website (http://nytransitdata.org) and, if you’re interested in helping out with this, join our meetup group: http://nytransitdata.org/meetup

  • Great point about Mint.com Pete, I’m coming from a product design background and will try to bring in some experienced Interaction Designers into Nicholas’ meetup, connecting civic-oriented Interaction Design professionals with Tech professionals could lead to some great stuff.

  • I’m not sure that open-source development for real-time info apps would cut MTA costs noticeably. But there could be other big benefits beyond those noted.

    What if New Yorkers viewed access to real-time transit info as a service improvement like faster service? Using the Balanced Transportation Analyzer, I estimate that an average 1% saving in transit speeds would increase transit ridership by 0.5%-0.7%, adding around $10 million a year to NYC transit revenues.

    I have no idea what value New Yorkers would actually place on the info. But the equation above suggests that even a low valuation could translate into a big MTA revenue boost (not to mention reduced auto traffic as some car and taxi trips shift to subway and bus).

  • LP

    “…formal relationship with a developer that will enable us to work together to ensure that the data being presented is accurate..” This is disingenuous at best – App developers obviously have a huge stake in accurate data, that’s the point.

    “…to clothing merchants to home furnishings manufacturers”
    Because inaccurate shower curtains would be a heavy blow to the MTAs home furnishings cred.

  • Mr. Komanoff, wouldn’t ridership perhaps decrease as better informed straphangers, newly made aware that a train is not coming in the next 20 minutes, choose to take a taxi instead?

  • A few years ago I recall Brian Ketcham showing me a report that suggested real-time scheduling information had substantially increased bus ridership in Paris, France.

    I will poke around and try to find that again. If true, then you could probably make a real argument that real-time transit info has the potential to generate more revenue for the MTA while, obviously, improving service for riders.

    Jonathan: Maybe the bus becomes a more attractive option for more people when customers are given a more concrete sense of when the bus is actually coming.

  • gecko

    Realtime mobile applications especially making use of global positioning systems probably have considerable potential people who travel by bicycles and similar small vehicles because they can stop, start, change route, adapt and interact with local considitions quite easily.

  • Shemp

    Or you could ride around and get to know a place without reference to some gadget that requires the government to fire a rocket into orbit.

  • Marty Barfowitz

    Yeah, but it’s not like anyone is asking the MTA to launch a rocket into space here. The satellites are already up there beaming Howard Stern and Martha Stewart to Sirius Radio customers and working with my Garmin Edge 705 to ensure that I don’t get lost biking loops around Prospect Park. Isn’t it kind of pathetic that the MTA can’t get real-time info to its customers, particularly when there’s a whole community of software developers out there who basically want to help them do it and they are even willing to work for free?

    It ain’t rocket science, MTA.

  • P

    Check out what the London Underground has: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U2uH-jrsSxs&feature=player_embedded

  • Michael Miller

    Actually, you don’t even need “a plain old cell phone with text messaging” to get real-time arrival info in Portland. TriMet’s Transit Tracker has been available to anyone with a touch-tone phone since 2004; speed-dial the number, punch in the stop ID (most if not all stops now have them posted), and you get real-time arrival info for bus, light rail or streetcar.

    The live data is incredibly useful – I call it all the time: to know if I need to run to my stop; to see how long the wait is for the following bus, in case the first one is packed; to know whether I have time to grab a cup of coffee or not.

    TriMet also provides it in a well-designed web interface. Here’s a stop not far from my office: http://www.trimet.org/arrivals/tracker.html?locationID=9301&x=0&y=0

  • gecko

    #13 Shemp, “Or you could ride around and get to know a place without reference to some gadget that requires the government to fire a rocket into orbit.”

    Not if you are in an area for the first time. GPS applications have proven quite useful in places I have never been before or am not familiar with.

    Verizon GPS even provides navigation and maps for bicycles.

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