Metro data could mean useful apps
In the relatively stagnant history of DC bus riding, few innovations have been the game-changer that the Nextbus system has. The online service tells you when your bus will arrive at its stop and eliminates the need to wait aimlessly or decode a schedule--plus recognizes that when a bus is scheduled to arrive and when it will arrive can be very different things, and uses GPS to beam buses' actual locations to computer servers in real time.
Because of the service, people who were previously reluctant to cede control to the unknowns of bus travel found themselves consulting their mobile phones or laptops and darting to the bus stop just as the bus driver pulled up, as if their personal chauffeur.
But a for-profit, third-party company was responsible for managing the online system, and retained rights to, and control over, some of the information about the publicly-supported bus system. Metro acknowledged problems with the accuracy of arrival predictions, and the company did not provide applications for all platforms, such as Blackberry.
In a report to be distributed at today's board meeting, Metro staff says the data would be better off in the hands of the public, where enterprising programmers, volunteer or otherwise, could use it freely and competitively, potentially providing more useful maps, mobile applications or data analysis, and lays out plans to begin making it happen by the end of the summer.
For example, a bar owner near the Metro could install marquees that could connect to the data to alert patrons to the arrival of the next train or bus, allowing them to time their exits or decide to grab another drink.
The data is set include real-time bus locations, train arrival predications, and computer-readable map files representing bus routes and stops--in a format that could easily be integrated with popular tools like Google Maps--in addition to computer-readable data that could inform users and help them hold the system accountable, including about incidents on the rail system and its elevators and escalators.
"Up to this point the agency's been slow to move, overly worried about liability and finding ways to make money off of information that's already been paid for by tax dollars and fares," said Tom Lee of the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit that focuses on the ways technology can improve government. "But WMATA's job is to run a transit system, not to build websites. There's just no way that the agency can produce software as efficiently as the free market can, particularly when it's facing intense budget pressure."
Noting that research has shown that such applications have a real impact on ridership, Lee said that as long as the license terms are reasonable, the move "should mean a better experience for riders, more bang for every transit tax dollar, and -- ultimately -- less crowded roads."
Metro says the move is more complete than any other major transit system, and comes in response to requests and complaints from a variety of groups. The move, which would have to be approved by the board, would come at a cost of $30,000.
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