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This is an interview with the creator of Transit AppSam Vermette.

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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.