“Where’s the bus?”
That should be an easy question to answer,thought Chris Dempsey, Director of Innovation at the MassachusettsDepartment of Transportation (MassDOT).
Well, it turns out the vast difference can be boiled downinto two little words: Open Data.
Open Data is a hot topic among people who are trying to findways to make government work more efficiently and connect more powerfully withwe-the-people.
The basic tenant of Open Data is that certain data arefreely available to everyone. Open Data has become part of the Government 2.0mantra and a theme in re-inventing government for the 21stcentury.
Until recently, transit data was closed, proprietary, andheld like a state secret. It wasn’t easy or even possible for anyone to providean answer to “Where’s the bus?” And, not surprisingly, no one did.
Until September 2009, that is. That’s when Dempsey’s teamembraced Open Data and the MBTA made basic trip planning information open. Ittold the developer community: here it is, come get it, have fun.
One of the first proponents of Open Data was the globalclimate research community. The United States Global Change Research Program(USGCRP) is an organization whose purpose is to observe, understand, andpredict global change, and to make its results available for use in policymatters.
One of its initiatives is the Global Change Data andInformation System (GCDIS). Morethan 15 years ago, in 1995, it set a clear bar for the CGDIS:
In other words, to solve big problems, data needs to be Open.
Over time, other segments of the science community followedsuit, agreeing that to further the cause of humankind, data needed to be Open.
Determined to find out, in mid-November the MBTA releasedreal time data for five bus lines. The T also launched a developer’s website -http://www.eot.state.ma.us/developers/ - to share the data and support theprocess.
Within one hour of opening the data – yes that’s right, one HOUR – someonehad mashed that data into Google Earth to show the real time location of thebusses.
Two days later someone else had created a free webpage wherepeople can track current bus location from any browser.
Within a week, people could download a cute little desktopapplet that counted down the time until a bus arrived at a favorite location.
In the blink of the eye there were a plethora of differentcountdown applications, applications that sent real-time bus data to any mobileor landline phone, iPhone andAndroid apps, and even an LED sign at a developer’s favored bus stop.
Data, unleashed, unleashed a wave of creative development.The team had its answer: Yes! Open Data could indeed make it easy to answer,“Where’s the bus?”
Open Data represents a huge shift in the way governmentsthink. Sharing is downright scary. Letting someone else use that data is evenmore scary. But maybe the Open Data movement isa way to encourage governments to think about their core competencies, focus onthese, and let go of some of the distractions.“The best thing to do to get organizational leaders comfortable withnew technologies is to relate them to things that are nottechnologically-based,” Dempsey told me in a email exchange about thetopic.
In other words, open data turns what are can be antagonisticrelationships into ones of synergy and opportunity. A transit entity is in thebusiness of making the busses run on time and on budget. Why not let someoneelse focus on communicating bus performance?
The same holds true for other public data. By opening it up,we have the potential to make it more usable and valuable. By opening it up, wealso change the interaction between the public and the public organization,creating a potentially more dynamic and meaningful one.
I’m thinking Open Data is a classic win-win opportunity.
So doe the MBTA. Last week it announced that real time datafeeds will be available for all routes by the end of the summer.
So, where is that bus? Check out http://catchthebusapp.com/ or any of the other apps to findout, or use that open data to create your own way of answering the question.