BART a National Leader in Real-Time Data Transparency and Development

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While the dispute between the MTA and NextBus Information Services (NBIS) over how real-time bus data on NextMuni (a separate company from NBIS) is used and licensed continues behind closed doors in downtown San Francisco, across the Bay, BART has flung its proverbial doors wide open to third-party developers to use its real-time data in as many and as interesting ways as they can conceive. In fact, BART is a national leader in data transparency among transit operators, and was second only to Tri-Met in Portland to release its real-time arrival feeds to the public.

Not only does BART provide the data readily to the public, it encourages competition among third-party software developers to improve the applications they develop by listing all the applications that have been devoloped on bart.gov/apps.

"We've put BART in front of customers in so many places that we wouldn't be able to do on our own," said BART Website Manager Timothy Moore. "We basically can't envision every beneficial use for this public data and frankly transit agencies in general don't have the vision. We don't have the time, we don't have the resources."

"There are people out there that have better ideas than we do," he added. "That's really why we opened it up."

Comparing BART to the MTA or other systems is not completely fair because BART's system is relatively small and simple, with only 43 stations across its lines, and each of its trains is equipped with automatic vehicle location (AVL) technology so they can be monitored anywhere in the system. MTA and other transit operators, whose buses, trolleys, and light rail vehicles don't necessarily come with GPS or AVL technology, must contract with a vendor to install AVL technology and obtain the data.

MTA signed a contract with NextBus in 2002 to install AVL technology and provide real-time data for where buses are in the system, or what has become NextMuni. MTA is in the process of renewing its contract with NextBus and MTA spokesperson Judson True would not elaborate on any specifics of the deal, though he was adamant that the MTA, as a public entity, has the right to release its AVL data to the public.

"We own the AVL data, we've been clear about that question," said True. "We know there is a strong city commitment to open data, and we want to be a leader in open data. We should be. We have a very tech savvy customer base and a lot of people around here who have great ideas for how to use that data."

The primary sticking point, from my own analysis of a portion of the contract, seems to be whether the MTA uses the AVL data commercially or not [lawyers and wonks, please: PDF]. In this document, the MTA claims the right to its own AVL data, specifically: "Muni retains the right to share said data at no cost with other of the government agencies, public transportation providers, and not-for-profit agencies."

No matter how the issue for MTA is resolved, it's clear that third-party developers would prefer as much transparency as possible. One of the largest of those is Google Transit, a division of Google, which currently uses only static schedule information in its Google Maps and Google Maps for mobile applications. Joe Hughes, a software engineer for Google Maps for mobile wouldn't discuss Google's plans for real-time software development, but said that the public benefit from open data is indisputable.

"When a transit agency unlocks huge amounts of data, and people start to use it, it's like an unofficial public private partnership," said Hughes, who also believed the standardization of the data into a format like the Google Transit Feed Specification (GTFS) was important as more operators try to become transparent with their data.

"It was always one of our goals, that as a side effect of adding public transportation data to Google Maps, it would help improve data quality. By standardizing the format it makes it easier for other people to use the data."

Hughes, who runs the Headway blog, a wiki, and a transit developers listserv that are unaffiliated with Google but are ground zero for developers, said BART and Tri-Met were the standard-bearers of data transparency and that he hoped others would follow suit.

"Real time data is extremely compelling and can make the difference between sitting in the freezing cold or in the hot sun or waiting in your comfortable home for the bus to arrive. It was a pleasant surprise to see that [BART] posted GTFS information before they even started working with Google. They were being very proactive with that."

BART's Moore wouldn't say much on the MTA and NBIS issue, though he reiterated several times that it benefits from the free data that BART provides and uses it in their predictive service, a point which he brought up with the chief of NBIS, though they made no effort to reciprocate.

"I don't want to burn any bridges with NBIS, but they are using BART's free and open real-time data feed in their pay-per view mobile site.  It's one of their selling points."

No matter what the outcome, Moore suggested the MTA and other agencies should release AVL data to the public for at least a couple of lines to see what open-sourcing would do for applications for mobile devices.

"What I'd like to see is some visionary transit agency out there let out an AVL feed for one or two bus lines and encourage the development community to take on the predictive software side of this problem. At the very least it could create some competition and at best it might create another option for the agency."