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What is Transit App and how many transit authorities does it cover?
Transit is an iPhone app that aims at making public transportation a breeze in Montreal and in 36 cities (and growing) across North America. What sets Transit apart from its competitors is that it requires very little to no interaction for the user to get the information he’s looking for. By using geolocation and displaying the information in a simple and visual fashion, the user has instant access to schedules of transit routes nearby.
Transit also boasts a trip planner that tells you how to get from point A to point B using public transportation. And since it works with over 100 transit agencies across North America, that means it’s also multimodal, integrating a wide variety of public transportation modes. For instance, in Montreal, the trip planner will suggest routes using STM buses and metro lines but also AMT’s commuter trains, as well as the Laval and Longueuil transit agencies and other smaller ones.
How does the app use Open Data?
Transit is powered by the open data of 102 transit agencies, released in the GTFS format (Google Transit Feed Specification, put in place by Google in 2005 to ease the exchange of transit-related data: routes, itineraries, stops, schedules, etc). The data is normalized (remove of duplicates, formatting of itinerary names and stops) and then imported into a server to which the app connects. This infrastructure removes the need for the app to download new data on its first launch, as it’s the case with many transit apps out there.
The app also uses real-time data of over 40 transit agencies, allowing for more precise departure times and real-time position of vehicles. In Canada, that data is made available by most major cities: Toronto, Vancouver, Ottawa, Winnipeg. Unfortunately, in Québec only the Société de transport de Laval (STL) offers that kind of data. That being said, both the STM and RTC recently announced that real-time data would be made available within a few years.
What are the main challenges of building a business on open transit data?
The biggest challenge is without a doubt having to deal with the large bureaucratic institutions that most transit agencies are. Many of them still don’t really grasp what’s at stake with open data, and only seem to view it as a public relations exercise, instead of acknowledging that it’s a major pillar in improving the accessibility of the service they provide.
Because transit schedules get updated every other month, we often have to get in touch with agencies to urge the release of new, up to date data. Sometimes we end up waiting one or 2 months for new data to get released, putting the users of the app in an odd situation where schedules and itineraries potentially become erroneous. It’s not always obvious to the user that a transit app isn’t developed by the transit agency, and that it’s only a facade on top of the agency’s open data. More often than not, the blame therefore falls on the developer who’s communicating wrong information through his app, rather than the transit agency who fails to keep its data up to date.
How could transit authorities encourage more and better apps?
First and foremost, transit agencies need to better understand the important role that third party apps play in the accessibility of their service. The most conservatives one still see it as cannibalization of potential revenues. In reality, it’s quite the opposite. If public transit is increasingly becoming popular, it’s in large parts thanks to the ubiquity of mobile apps that communicate transit schedules and itineraries. Even better: these apps cost absolutely nothing to transit agencies, if only to release and maintain open data.
In this perspective, the main purpose of transit agencies should be to feed developers with quality data, allowing them to build good apps that communicate accurate data. Agencies should also always open a communication channel with the developer community and get involved in it, as it’s the best candidate to provide ideas on how to improve their data.
Contests and hackathons can also be organized to entice and accelerate the development of apps that use their data. To a more advanced level, it’s also in their best interest to offer graphical guidelines (route colors and symbols, for instance) to help developers build intuitive interfaces that are consistent with real-world signage.
Do you know if this app has encouraged more people who don’t normally use public transit to use public transit?
We regularly receive emails from users who are jumping the public transit bandwagon using Transit. Others tell us about their initial fear of getting familiar with their public transit network and how Transit helped greatly reduce that fear. As mentioned earlier, it goes without saying that mobile apps and open data in general are a huge accessibility booster for public services. In the case of Transit, I think we’ve managed to build a simple and attractive interface that gets out of the way when trying to find schedules and itineraries.
And because it covers so many cities, it allows people to quickly get familiar with public transit systems abroad. Instead of having to search, download and learn how to use a new transit app every time they travel, they can simply launch Transit and find the information they’re looking for. The heavy use of colors and graphic symbols, establishing links with real-world signage, also helps quickly finding your way around the app.
Any other comments on open data and the transit app world?
From the suburbs to the city, citizens need to see public transportation as a smart and responsible way to go places. For this to work, however, public transit has to be fast and reliable but also accessible.
Through the opening of its data, transit agencies delegate a major part of the service accessibility problematic to app developers. Through this they should see an opportunity for them to reallocate more resources to the improving of the service they provide (service frequency, new vehicles, accessibility to impaired users, etc), which incidentally responds to the ridership increase brought on by open data.
It’s time for all institutions to see open data as more than a way to get press and that only appeals to a handful of hackers; it leads to the making of tools that actually improve the lives of millions.
Montreal Ouvert recently organised a meeting between city officials and Intellectual Property expert David Fewer on the various open-data formats and which ones the city of Montreal could adopt.
Unfortunately, many lawyers still fear open data and have a natural reflex to protect their clients (city) by putting in place complex licences. However, this approach limits developers’ ability to use the data and thus stunts the growth of the open data initiative. We hope Montreal will learn from the mistakes of other cities and institute a progressive open-data licence. For more information, see our Next Montreal article “Une licence peut tuer l’innovation”.
The Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic (CIPPIC) was established at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law in the fall of 2003. It is the first legal clinic of its kind in Canada. In 2007, technology innovator and entrepreneur Dr. Robert Glushko and his wife, Professor Pamela Samuelson, made a large donation to CIPPIC, allowing the clinic to continue its student-centered research and advocacy on technology-related policy and law reform.
Montreal Hack/Reduce – Big Data Hackathon March 26th.
“Hack/Reduce is an open event for developers of all skill levels interested in Big Data. You will learn, experiment and build using Hadoop Map/Reduce on an Amazon EC2 cluster. We also have many experienced Hadoop Map/Reduce developers present to give you hands-on support.
The event brings together Developers, Companies, Entrepreneurs and Students working with Big Data.
From: March 26 2011 at 10:00 AM to 08:00 PM
Where: The Hopper Office, 5795 Ave de Gaspé, Suite 100, Montreal, QC,
Canada, H2S 2X3
Entry fee: Free
The open data movement has picked up a lot of steam in Montréal since the beginning of the year. Momentum is growing but it must be sustained. Montréal Ouvert invites you to its 3rd public meeting Thursday March 10th, from 6-8pm, at the Notman House (51 Sherbrooke Ouest).
Come find out what’s being happening in the open data movement in your city. We’ll have time to network and discuss our next steps. So, to anyone working on open data issues, reflecting about open data, or simply want to learn more about it, you should be there.
Bring a friend or colleague! Open data affects us all — students, researchers, journalists, community organizers, statisticians, librarians, public officials, elected representatives, and engaged citizens alike!
51, rue Sherbrooke Ouest
Thursday, March 10th
Sign-up at our doodle: http://doodle.com/ssai37emdrfch4u8
The amount of public civic data is exploding, but much remains closed or unavailable. Here’s a canvas of existing projects, highlighting opportunities and challenges for open data.
Most civic projects target national governments. mySociety (UK) runs TheyWorkForYou, which allows you to track parliament’s MPs, bills, and debates. Canadian equivalents are Apathy is Boring‘s Citizen Factory and Michael Mulley‘s OpenParliament. In the US, Participatory Politics runs OpenCongress, which it has recently generalized for any jurisdiction with the OpenGovernment project. Some projects target voting records specifically, like The Public Whip in the UK, and How’d They Vote? in Canada. Americans go further and connects the dots between votes and money with MapLight.
Most of these projects are open-source, meaning anyone can get the code and download the data.
It is important to note that most projects do not use open data. In Canada’s open cities, most of the open data relates to transportation, recreation, and geography; very little of it would embarrass anyone. The Government of Canada discloses expenses, contracts, grants and contributions, but the data is spread across 132 departmental web sites and is available only in HTML, which is not an open format. The City of Toronto publishes its council’s meeting attendance and voting record in open formats, but not its operating budget or awarded contracts. In order to extract this data, developers must write scrapers, a time-consuming and error-prone process.
Whether it’s Resto-Net (Montreal), Eat Sure (London), or Eat Safe (US) for restaurant inspections; LondonTrash,VanTrash, or Déchets Montréal for garbage collection; MyTTC (Toronto), hbus.ca (Halifax), or Where is my bus? (Ottawa) for public transportation; or CommonSpace (Philadelphia), Rinkside (Ottawa), or Patiner Montréal for recreation – these projects show that making data available is of enormous value to citizens.
It’s not only politically-harmless data that should be open, however. To build a strong democracy, politically-sensitive data should be open, too. In the US, LittleSis tracks the ties between powerful people and organizations; Transparency Data tracks money in politics from lobbying to campaign contributions; and PolitiFact monitors campaign promises and fact-checks politicians. These projects demonstrate the importance and usefulness of this data.
In many cities, civic projects are very difficult to complete, because the relevant data is often either difficult to retrieve or unavailable. Where it’s available, Openly Local (UK) makes municipal governments more accessible, and EveryBlock (US) tracks what’s happening in your part of town — from news and events to crimes and license revocations. Police services are often uneasy about publishing crime data, but in Oakland police cooperate with developers to produce Crimespotting.
Newsrooms around the world are making use of closed data despite the challenges. ProPublica sets an example, with its stories on which doctors are receiving money from drug companies and which nurses currently working in California were previously sanctioned out-of-state. And when the data is unavailable, services are popping up to make freedom to information requests easier to track and share, like WhatDoTheyKnow (UK) and MuckRock (US).
Governments collect their data on behalf of their constituencies. Unless privacy or security issues are involved, governments should release this data to the public that it represents. Making it public is a first step. But how reliable is it? Is it consistent, complete, and timely? Is it open? What data isn’t being made available? Governments at all levels are still only beginning to adopt open data, but we should remember that even after a city or country makes it policy, the push for open data isn’t over.