MTA Publishes NextMuni Arrival Time Feed

nextmuni.jpgInstructions for using the XML feed. Image: SFMTA.
With the publication of a NextMuni real-time vehicle prediction feed on its website earlier this week, the MTA took an important step from having a policy of open data to actually making data publicly available and usable. It's the latest development in a five-month struggle over who owns Muni arrival time data, and should come as a relief to software developers who have had consistent reassurances from the MTA that they're free to use the data, but haven't had an official means to do so until now.

SF Appeal broke the story last June that Apple had removed Routesy, an iPhone app for checking Muni arrival times, from its App Store after Next Bus Information Systems (NBIS), an entirely separate entity according to NextBus's Michael Smith, claimed proprietary ownership of the arrival time data. The MTA disputed that claim from the start, and Apple eventually let Routesy back on the App Store, but the MTA made sure to end any ambiguity in its new contract with NextBus, which the MTA Board approved in August. That contract not only expressly states that the MTA owns the data, it also requires NextBus to assist the MTA with publishing an XML-format feed of the data:

Contractor shall provide necessary technological assistance in placing an XML data stream (via weblink or other SFMTA approved data conveyance) of the real time predictive AVLS data to the SFMTA's website.

The new feed fulfills that provision in the contract, and should make it easier for developers to access the data. Routesy developer Steven Peterson welcomed the change, crediting the MTA with standing up for the public's right to access the data. "[MTA spokesperson] Judson True and the MTA have really been great about the entire data issue," Peterson said. "I knew in advance that they'd be providing something at some point, but rather than making me wait, the city went on the record saying that they support the efforts of developers using city data and asserting their ownership of the feeds published at NextBus.com. Had they not responded so definitively, it definitely would have been harder for my lawyer to convince Apple to reinstate my application."

Peterson said he expects the next update to Routesy will point to the official feed, and it should be more stable as a result. "The advantage of switching Routesy to the new URL will be that it's (hopefully) less likely to be broken by changes on the NextBus side, a problem that Routesy has encountered several times," said Peterson.

"We're very excited about making this data more readily available to application developers because we think that it will lead directly to benefits for our customers," said True. "Putting this feed up is just the latest example of our ongoing effort to make as much of our data available as possible."

Continuing its excellent coverage of the saga, SF Appeal reported that NextBus' Michael Smith is pleased to see the MTA has made the feed available:

SFMTA clarified several months ago that they are sole owners of the NextMuni real-time data. But now with the public feed they are actually enabling passengers to reap the benefits by enabling the information to be provided to passengers in new and interesting ways. It will be very exciting to see what new applications third-party developers come up with.

Smith also told the Appeal that NBIS doesn't speak for NextBus, Inc.

The new feed, which is also available on DataSF, brings Muni more in line with BART, a national leader in real-time data transparency, as Streetsblog reported last June. "The City has gone about this in the right way, writing the ownership rights into their new contract and providing a public feed with documentation -- it's really impressive and I hope that other major cities will follow suit," Routesy developer Peterson told Streetsblog. "I'm not sure how NBIS could continue to demand payment from other application developers, but I believe their sights may be more focused on other NextBus cities (like DC) so it should be interesting to see what happens."