Getting Cities to Share Their Data, Not Sell It

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).

Image via <a target="_blank" href="http://waxy.org/2012/06/busting_the_ios_6_transit_map_myths/">Waxy.org</a>.
Image via Waxy.org.
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.

Transit and bicycling route layers for downtown Chicago on Google Maps.

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.

U.S. copyright law states that, with some exceptions, work produced by the U.S. government is not copyrighted and is essentially public domain. But state governments and local agencies don’t always follow suit; many charge “cost recovery” fees to users of data, and these fees can be quite high. While some argue for these fees from a philosophical or economic perspective, others make the case that an open data policy is a path that will spur increased innovation and public benefit.

Twenty years ago, the software tools used to make digital maps (geographical information systems, or GIS) belonged almost exclusively to government agencies, large corporations, and academics. Today, even junior high school students can create online maps of their communities using freely available tools and data. Civic hackers—graphic designers, website developers, and engaged citizens—are united to build cool applications using data freely released by our local, state, and federal government agencies.


Image by OpenSourceWay via Flickr.

And our geeks in government aren’t just releasing bus schedules and real estate maps—they’re contributing to open source software at every level of government by releasing the tools they’ve built with taxpayer funds. A recent interview with Chris Willey, CIO of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, includes a quote that perfectly summarizes why the open source ethos fits so well with the mission of government:

When I was working for the District, Apps for Democracy was a big contest that we did around opening data and then asking developers to write applications using that data that could then be used by anybody. We said that the next logical step was to sort of create more participatory government. And in my mind, open sourcing the projects that we do is a way of asking the citizenry to participate in the active government.

Apple’s decision to drop transit trip planning in iOS 6 will definitely have fallout beyond its immediate battle with Google, but transit riders in cities that provide open transit data should still have free and open alternatives for trip planning. Although there are still some holdouts, more and more cities are seeing the benefits of open data strategies. With organizations like OpenPlans and City Go Round offering assistance and software to transit authorities, I’m confident that we’ll see the continued growth and adoption of open transit data products over the next few years.

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