Who owns Data from Tax Funded Projects, 3 example of Transit Systems

News.com has a post on the issue of data access in three different transit systems – NY, SF, and Portland. This is something to think about when considering smart grid projects and other projects that could affect data centers. 

Who owns transit data?

by Rafe Needleman

Commuters on public transit want to know two fundamental things: when can I expect the bus or train to pick me up? And when will it drop me off at my destination?

Nowadays, they may also be wondering whether their local transit agency is willing to share that data with others to put it into new and helpful formats.

How likely is it that the arrival and departure information will be available on a site or service other than the official one? That depends on how open your local agency is. In some metro areas, transit agencies make data--routes, schedules, and even real-time vehicle location feeds--available to developers to mash into whatever applications they wish. In others, the agencies lock down their information, claiming it may not be reused without permission or fee.

When tax payers money is involved there are interesting views on what should happen.

In local blogs and on transit sites, outrage over agencies and companies that claim ownership of the data is growing. The core argument against locking down such data is that it's collected by or paid for by public, taxpayer-funded agencies and thus should be open to all citizens, and that schedule data by itself is not protectable content. The argument against is that the agencies might be able to profit from using the data if they can maintain control of it. The counter to that is the belief that if the data is open, clever developers will create cool apps that make transit systems more usable, thus increasing ridership and helping transit agencies live up to their charters of moving people around and getting as many private cars as possible off the roads.

StationStops gives New York metro rail commuters a timetable in their iPhones.

(Credit: StationStops)

Each city and metro area with a transit system is unique, but there are three cases in the U.S. that highlight the way the transit data drama can play out.

NY’s view treats data as copyrighted work.

New York locks down subway schedules
As reported last week at ReadWriteWeb and elsewhere, the New York Metropolitan Transportation Agency believes its public train schedules fall under copyright law and thus applied an interpretation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) to send a takedown notice to the developer of StationStops, an iPhone app that gives people access to train schedules on the Metro-North lines.

SF is taking a more open approach, but has its hiccups.

San Francisco writes data accessibility into contracts

The Routesy iPhone app uses NextBus data to predict transit arrival times.

(Credit: Routesy)

In San Francisco last week, Mayor Gavin Newsom unveiled (via TechCrunch) the Datasf.org initiative, which aims to put all the city's data online for open access. Included in the program is the San Francisco Municipal Transit Agency's schedule data. There's no question that this is a positive development for San Francisco Bay Area transit app developers and that it sets a good precedent for developers elsewhere. However, static schedule data is not the whole story for transit apps, especially on systems where route schedules are poorly adhered to (on New York's Metro-North lines, the schedules are somewhat reliable; for San Francisco's MUNI buses, they are not). The most useful new apps collect real-time vehicle location data, and access to that information is not yet available from SFData.

In many cities, a company called NextBus gathers location data from vehicles and then makes that information available to the subscribing cities as well as on its own Web site. Developers of real-time transit iPhone apps, such as San Francisco's Routesy and iCommute, have had mixed results in getting access to that data.

Portland is the best.

Visit Portland for the best in transit apps
In Portland, Ore., openness on the part of the local transit agency has been a blessing for transit app developers. There are more than 25 apps that use the public TriMet data stream. Many of the apps duplicate others' functions and features, but it's just this kind of competition that makes apps better over time. When companies control data about their services and are the only ones to provide the apps that use the data, users do not get the same benefit of rapid application evolution.

Then there is google working with all three.

Google drives the bus
Google is the most aggressive company in the transit planning business. If you ask Google Maps for directions, by default it will route you by car, but you can also ask it to give you directions by public transit. In many metro areas, it will even direct you among different transit systems (from a local bus line to a commuter rail system, for example).

I travel to all three cities, and I agree Portland has the best system and is the most enjoyable to visit for public transit.  The Portland Trimet system has this site for apps.  And, a developer center.