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Upgrading Transit's Interface: Metro Releases Google Transit Data

This morning, Metro's Web site has a new page with a title not normally seen on the online presences of transit agencies: "Developer Resources."

That page offers a download of Metro's bus and rail schedules in Google Transit Feed Specification format, ready for any developer to download and reuse in a Web page or in a standalone program. (At the moment, clicking through the user agreement on the page only sends you back to the user agreement, but I'm sure somebody at Metro will correct that soon enough. Right?)

In doing this, Metro is following the example of a lot of smart Web sites -- but too few government agencies -- by letting the rest of the world re-use, re-publish and mash up its data. The immediate effect of a GTFS download may only be the addition of Metro rail and bus routes to the transit guidance offered on Google Maps (assuming the Mountain View, Calif., Web firm doesn't object to Metro's terms of use). That alone should make Metro's services far more "discoverable," to use a little human-interface jargon. But when anybody else can play this game, the possibilities are wide open.

In the same way that Web developers have used Google Maps tools to build crafty sites charting everything from real-estate sales to campaign donations, people will be able to build Web sites, widgets and programs using Metro's data in ways that the company hasn't thought of and may never dream up on its own.

For a sense of the possibilities, look over this interview from last year, in which two managers in Portland, Oregon's Tri-Met transit agency explain how independent developers and other government agencies are building useful software and services off their data feeds with minimal cost and effort.

Another example comes in this morning's post on Greater Greater Washington, a development-and-transportation-issues blog that has been lobbying Metro for months to offer a GTFS data feed (GGW founder David Alpert is a former Google employee). The developers of Walk Score, a nifty site that grades the pedestrian compatibility of neighborhoods, plan to use Metro's data to build "transit time maps" showing where Metro can take you in 45 minutes from particular locations in the Washington area.

Without an open data feed, however, you're limited to whatever a government agency thinks to put up on its own site -- notwithstanding the occasional hack put together by serious nerds.

(Incidentally, this story provides an interesting case study of how the Web is changing the distribution of news. The news of Metro's decision came in a comment on an unrelated GGW post by regular site contributor Michael Perkins, who was watching a live Webcast of a Metro board meeting at the time. Metro then confirmed the change on its Facebook page nine days before putting up a press release.)

Metro resisted the idea of providing an open feed of its schedules for too long. As an everyday passenger, I applaud the agency's recognition that it doesn't have a monopoly on good ideas about presenting its services. In case WMATA's management isn't done looking for ways to improve transit's user interface, might I suggest they make an even bigger upgrade by finally replacing their nearly-random assortment of bus route names with monikers that actually say something about the origin or destination of a given bus?

By Rob Pegoraro  |  March 23, 2009; 2:00 PM ET
Categories:  Digital culture  
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Comments

Real time updates for Metro are a great step forward. I know it will make me more willing to take Metro.

Next they need to solve the bus schedule problem. If they can work out real-time info for buses we might really have something. Today your wait can be five minutes and it could be 50. There is no way to know.

Posted by: slar | March 23, 2009 3:42 PM | Report abuse

A low tech upgrade would be to put route maps at the bus stops. Many European cities do that.

Posted by: DrBones721 | March 23, 2009 6:19 PM | Report abuse

How about getting Metro to work with NextBus at www.nextbus.com ? Then the public could easily get the time for the next arrival of the bus or subway on any route at any stop. They've been doing it in San Francisco for about 10 years now.

Posted by: zippoz | March 23, 2009 11:34 PM | Report abuse

This is a good idea. There will be some interesting and innovative applications.

Rob, you are probably the only one who can track all these and keep us informed, review them, etc.

I would want iPhone apps in particular.

Yeah. When will the next bus be here? I'd like that.

Posted by: Bitter_Bill | March 24, 2009 7:01 AM | Report abuse

The simplest idea for real-time bus schedules is to number each stop. Commuters would text that bus stop number to metro, and would then receive a text message listing the arrival times of the next bus on each route served by that stop.

Posted by: PoliticalOatmeal | March 24, 2009 10:24 AM | Report abuse

I just tried to dowload it. The page doesn't seem to be up yet. I keep getting the page cannot be found error.

Posted by: MSagi | March 24, 2009 10:26 AM | Report abuse

Mapping technology, though helpful for commerce and usability, will do little if more basic issues with Bus and Rail service aren't corrected. I think Metro could leverage more rider input through this data and supporting technology. Just imagine: If riders want to report a rude or unsafe driver? A foul smelling bus interior? A bus belching black smoke? A train driver who couldn't be understood? Patrons could simply click a link to the date, time and route, and voila...Metro management has actionable information to track down their service issues, neatly categorized, with the patron's contact info for rapid followup. Mapping uses are great, undoubtedly, but Metro needs better accountability and data provided by its own patrons, not just internal reports. Open-source data is a first step in that direction.

Posted by: borkborkbork | March 24, 2009 2:04 PM | Report abuse

Let's get the ability to add money to SmarTrip online, one step at a time!

Posted by: matt200091 | March 24, 2009 2:21 PM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

 
 
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