September 10, 2009 | By Tim Jones

Who Controls Data About Public Transportation?

How should city transit authorities treat independent software developers who make use of public schedule data? What approach results in the best experience for their passengers and customers?

Two models appear to be emerging to answer this question. One, typified by New York City's MTA and Washington, DC's WMATA, sees schedule and related data as valuable intellectual property, to be zealously protected, licensed and monetized. So far, the results of this approach appear to have been bad press, irate passengers, wasted money and stymied innovation.

The other model, typified by San Francisco's SFMTA and Portland's TriMet, holds that encouraging independent developers to make free use of schedule information can both save the city money and foster innovative applications. As SFMTA San Francisco BART's Timothy Moore told Streetsblog: "We've put BART in front of customers in so many places that we wouldn't be able to do on our own. 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."

In 2009, we've seen interesting developments in each of these four cities:

In New York City, developer Chris Schoenfeld created StationStops, an iPhone app that provided schedule information for Metro North, NYC's largest commuter rail system. The app ran smoothly until earlier this summer, when NYMTA contacted Schoenfeld to claim ownership of the schedule data and demand $5,000 in advance "royalties" on Schoenfeld's revenue.

Schoenfeld wisely recognized this as nonsense: Copyright law simply does not apply to publicly-available factual information. But when he declined to pay the licensing fees, NYMTA sent a takedown notice to Apple, demanding that StationStops be banned from the iPhone. Apple, of course, complied.

NYMTA's extortionate actions censored a helpful and perfectly legal use of their data. The results have been bad for their reputation and bad for their passengers. Connecticut's Stamford Advocate put it well: the MTA "should just leave (Schoenfeld) alone and let him make an honest buck by providing a useful service."

In Washington, DC, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) seems to be working hard to learn exactly the wrong lessons from NYC's example. After an online petition drive by DC transit activists, WMATA reluctantly opened their data to developers earlier this year. But they also allocated $500,000 (yes, that's five hundred thousand dollars,) for a study which they say "will give us a firm idea as to the commercial value of intellectual property like scheduling information."

We'll save them the trouble: While it's possible they may be able to wrench some value from their trademarks (even though this tactic, too, has backfired embarassingly for NYMTA,) there is no economic value in their schedule information. Any attempt to restrict others' use of this data is baseless and counterproductive. They've already opened their schedule data — if they're smart, they'll keep it that way.

Here in San Francisco, the SF Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) has made great strides towards a first-rate open transit data system, and is setting an example that other transit authorities should aspire to. Schedule data has long been available from the SFMTA in the excellent Google Transit Feed Specification format. And websites like SFMTA Labs and the BART Developer Center encourage and help developers to make use of the data.

However, this silver cloud does have a dark lining: While SFMTA itself has refrained from sending baseless takedown notices, a corporation called NextBus Information Services (NBIS) hasn't been so wise. In 2008, developer Steven Peterson created an iPhone application called Routesy, which provides passengers with real-time updates of bus and train locations and arrival times. Then, last month, NBIS contacted Peterson, claimed ownership of the real-time arrival data, and demanded that Routesy be discontinued. When Peterson refused, NBIS asked Apple to ban Routesy from the iTunes App Store. Apple, of course, complied.

NBIS, like the NYC MTA, appears guilty of copyfraud. They've been unable to produce any proof that they do, in fact, own the data in question. SFMTA, to their credit, quickly clarified the situation, telling SFAppeal.com that "Muni owns the data in question and that the public is, of course, entitled to access it." Thanks in part to that statement, Peterson's lawyer was finally able to persuade Apple to restore Routesy to the iTunes App Store. (Though similar skirmishes with NBIS appear to be occuring in other cities.)

Finally, in Portland, Oregon, TriMet was one of the earliest transit authorities in the US to adopt an open data program and encourage independent developers. The result is a healthy and competitive application market that speaks for itself: Over 25 different mobile applications from different developers make creative use of the data. And, the open data program enabled Portland Airport to display real-time train arrival information at their baggage claims — with no additional work required on TriMet's part. TriMet's Bibiana McHugh explains: "Before, we would have needed to work with a technical team for the airport to make this happen, but with developer.trimet.org, we just make the information available once and our work is done."

If other government data-sets are any indication, the transit apps we've seen so far are just the beginning of what's possible. Just take a look at the impressive winners of Sunlight Foundation's Apps For America contest.

For reasons both legal and practical, transit authorities should follow the lead of SFMTA, TriMet and the Obama Administration's Data.gov, and allow independent developers to freely use their data. The results so far have been a better deal for passengers and taxpayers alike.


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