No more waiting for the bus; open software can keep you warm and dry

Transit companies are opening their data for traveler-friendly apps

In my younger years, I had a system whereby if I dashed out the door as soon as the Green Line train appeared in my kitchen window, I could just beat it to the Northeastern T-stop. Now my old kitchen window is being obsoleted by an iPhone app called Catch the Bus. In fact, that's just one of the available ways of accessing the open real time data now provided by the MBTA (Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority).

This is part of a movement to open up transit data to the public and developers of applications. City-Go-Round is a cool organization on a mission "to help make public transit more convenient." They provide access to and ratings for 132 apps from 113 different transit agencies. They also shine a light on agencies that do not provide open data. Those 113 agencies providing data are a minority of the 801 agencies tracked by CGR. And, of them, only 6 provide real-time data. (Chicago, San Francisco Muni and BART, Seattle, Portland and DC...Boston is a trial, so not listed.)

Most of the open agencies provide static data in a format called GTFS (General Transit Feed Specification). This format defines data about stops (including GPS coordinates), routes, schedules, fares, and other attributes that don't change with great frequency. Agencies typically upload a file to a repository like the GTFS data exchange every few months. Developers can us RSS to subscribe to notices of changes. This is all pretty useful for laying out the way it is supposed to work, but only with real time information can an app compete with my kitchen window.

The MBTA project kicked off in December with a Great American Hackathon event hosted by Thoughtbot. The MBTA introduced over 100 developers to their new pilot project to provide a real time XML feed of GPS locations for buses on five of their bus routes. The organizers cautioned that, "It is possible that feed will be turned off November, 2010 if developers don't create anything interesting or Those Fatcats don't see value in transparency."

There doesn't seem to be much to worry about. The group had built a prototype in hours and within a week there were initial apps available on line. The MBTA itself offers a simple web app to access the real time data along with their T-Alerts text messaging system. Today there are numerous applications available utilizing different media, including a system whereby businesses feature LED display of bus arrivals that allow patrons to pace their coffee consumption. Interested developers can find more information on the MassDOT site.

Not surprisingly, many of these apps for accessing open data are open source. OpenMBTA is one example, and one could well imagine developers modifying it for their particular locality. A quick search of the Black Duck KnowledgeBase turned up a half dozen transit-related apps.

My guess is that this is the beginning of a trend. The governments we all fund are very much in the business of collecting data, much of it public, little of it open. We'll likely see much more transparency and openness as people begin to understand the value...and spend less time waiting for the bus.

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