I don’t know about you, but I’ve been hearing a lot of people wondering what’s so special about the L train and the 34th Street crosstown bus that allows these transit routes to make known the ETA of the next train or bus? And then, just when civic-minded web developers take matters in their own hands and push schedules onto the mobile devices of riders, they get the smackdown from transit agencies claiming infringement of intellectual property.
On Tuesday night, I joined a group of passionate open data advocates, technologists, legislative aids, lawyers and assorted straphangers to brainstorm, over pizza and beer, potential modes of and arguments for greater collaboration between web developers and the MTA. The meet-up was in response to the flare-up over the past couple weeks when the MTA sought licensing fees for an iPhone app that provided Metro-North schedules. The events’ organizers provide a good overview here.
Can factual data have a copyright? Maps, logos, branding: sure. But data? The licensing precedent invoked by the MTA in this instance essentially treats schedule apps for mobile devices the same way as it would shower curtains, cuff-links or those flashy silk boxers bedecked with a subway map.
I should say that I went in to the meeting, which was organized by the Open Planning Project (TOPP) and took place at their appropriately open plan offices, feeling like an unlikely apologist for the MTA. I don’t normally get in the habit of defending the embattled agency, but I can understand the misgivings of a public authority that doesn’t want to be forced into taking responsibility for the accuracy of data delivered to its ridership by third parties. And if web and mobile tech developers are going to profit from products that trade on the schedules of a service funded by the public purse, shouldn’t the cash-strapped transit system be able to offset some of its costs by taking a cut? Besides, I do find that many commuters, frustrated with the state of transit in New York, often fail to appreciate the complexity of the services that the MTA delivers, not to mention the political challenges of reforming a state-run operation (have you read the latest from Albany recently?) Surely, there are issues more pressing than creating a more efficient system to share scheduling data.
Or are there? On second thought, maybe making open data a top priority is one of the best ways for the MTA to make significant gains in public perception and the quality of riders’ experience without the need for any capital investment.
The group Tuesday night, I’m glad to report, appreciated the challenges, and everyone took a pro-active approach to identifying opportunities for positive collaboration rather than berating the MTA. Attendees were highly informed. The crowd was not only intimately familiar with the MTA’s anachronistic data request process: first, you file an official Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request, then you wait several months for an (often outdated) CD of schedule data, and then (if you are so inclined) you laboriously parse the data to make it conform to Google’s Transit Feed Specification (GTSF) for use in a mobile app. The assembled were also aware of the ways other municipal and state transit agencies across the country had been able to leverage the expertise of the open source community to improve their public transportation systems, such as in Massachusetts, the SF Bay Area and (of course) Portland.
The event resulted in a wiki. Read it and contribute ideas to help flesh it out.
More information * ease of access = happier riders. Right?