Who Let The Data Out?: Comparing Transit Systems’ Open Data Elements

Washington D.C. is the latest transit agency of note to open its data to the public – and they are going all out to take the lead in this area in order to improve service. The agency is creating a comprehensive system for web, mobile, and other software applications to access a wide variety of transit information.

This week, the WMATA Customer Services, Operations, And Safety Committee released a report on Transparent Metro Data Sets which included a handy chart with side-by-side comparisons of data types for several transit agencies (including L.A. Metro) relating to both bus and rail.

The chart shows some categories of information that WMATA will make publicly accessible that many other transit agencies do not, including bus positions, bus route shapes, rail elevator and escalator incidents, rail station prediction, and rail system incidents.

Last year, Metro launched a developer site for individuals and entities to access transportation and multi-modal data such as routes, stops, schedules, and geographical information. To date, at least 14 new transit applications have been developed, and there are surely many more to come.

We wanted to take a closer look at open data and how this fast-growing trend lends transparency and public participation to the collection, consumption and dissemination of information.

Numerous governmental institutions, including transit agencies, have jumped on the bandwagon to open up their data collections to the public so that information can be repurposed for the greater good.

City-Go-Round helps you find useful transit applications around the country, and encourages public transit agencies to open their data to software developers. While many agencies now provide open data, many others do not. City-Go-Round lists 690 agencies that are not providing open data, including several large ones such as MARTA (Atlanta), Miami-Dade Transit, Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (Calif.) and AC Transit (Alameda & Contra Costa Counties, Calif.).

Software developers using open data take advantage of citizens’ specialized or expert skills, local knowledge, community-based needs, and other “professional amateurs.” Applications such as FixMyStreet and SeeClickFix have broad appeal and been embraced by more than one locale.

Even something as mundane as the bus stop can be redesigned with data-friendly enhancements that support interactive maps and trip planning.

According to a Fleet Beat White Paper on open transit data:

The only negative some agencies see in providing their data to the public is the elimination of potential revenue from selling the data to developers. However, because the data is generated by taxpayer-funded agencies, the general consensus is that agencies should not profit from this data. Agencies that kept their data closed in hopes of selling it, such as New York City’s MTA – who recently released their data – have experienced extensive backlash from both the developer community and transit passengers.

Furthermore, The Washington Post featured a story this week reporting that Freedom Of Information Act requests dropped substantially in 2009. It should be noted that proactively pushing data into the public sphere for applications development saves government agencies (and in turn, taxpayers) the cost of responding to public records requests.

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