Selling public transit data
Do you ride the bus or subway? You may have heard a bit of tech news recently that could strike close to your pocket: the next update of Apple’s Maps app for iPhones and iPads will no longer include Google’s integrated transit routing service. Instead, public transit directions will be provided by third-party apps. The move is eliciting strong responses from public transportation advocates, but as Kevin Webb of open source transit nonprofit OpenPlans points out, some cities may “fare” better than others (pun mine, not Kevin’s).
Webb explains that while many cities provide transit information for free, enabling open source and community-supported developers to offer trip planning services, other cities don’t release that data publicly. Instead these cities may sell it to corporate service providers or develop their own proprietary transit planning systems in-house.
Without delving too deep into geekery: Google and the Portland, Ore. Tri-Met transit agency collaborated on building a computerized standard format for transit schedules several years ago, known as GTFS. When a transit agency publishes their schedules in GTFS format on the Internet, Google Maps and the future iOS map app can read that schedule data and convert it into transit directions for users.
Webb’s team at OpenPlans has launched a KickStarter campaign to fund a new mobile app called OpenTripPlanner Mobile, which will offer coverage of every transit agency that provides free GTFS schedules. Their team has provided a helpful map of North American transit agencies that provide this scheduling data and that will be included in the new application.
With such strong momentum behind the movement, why isn’t every transit agency jumping on board the open data train? (Sorry, last pun, I promise!) An article by the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership lists the top five reasons why data providers frequently resist the urge to publish open data - along with helpful arguments against each of the reasons. Of course many transit agencies are underfunded and under-resourced and that can be a somewhat understandable reason for a lack of publication of open data. But the agencies that are selling the data or contractually obligated by their transit computer system providers from releasing it are the bumps in the open data road ahead.