Where's the Bus? (The power of Open Data)

“Where’s the bus?”

That should be an easy question to answer,thought Chris Dempsey, Director of Innovation at the MassachusettsDepartment of Transportation (MassDOT).  

Heh. Think again. 

Where’s the bus?  
The answer had eluded transit authorities since, well, probablysince the first bus rolled away from the first bus stop. It was asimple, yet puzzling question and one that lay at the heart of theinteraction between public and transit. 
There was no reason, really, thought Dempsey, that the question should be such a challenge.
Look at weather, after all. Weather is complex and yet there arehundreds upon hundreds of options for finding out if the sun mightshine tomorrow, or if the clouds will be rolling in.
What exactly is the difference between “Will it rain?” and“Where’s the bus?”

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.

While pondering bus routes, Dempsey came to realize is that weather data - unlike bus data - is open.People can access it, manipulate it, and create applications with, for and fromit.
As with many other open movements, the open door to data created an array ofoptions and let lose a flurry of creativity such that we've ended up with a million ways to find out ifit’s a lion or a lamb kind of day.

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.

By November, there were six interesting and innovativeapplications built on MBTA data.
Cost to the MBTA: $0.
Benefits to the transitpublic? Incalculable.

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:

International programs for global change research andenvironmental monitoring crucially depend on the principle of full and opendata exchange (i.e., data and information are made available without restriction,on a non-discriminatory basis, for no more than the cost of reproduction anddistribution).

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.

Governments slowly began to experiment as well. The federalOpen Government initiative wants to change the culture of informationdissemination and the data.gov website (http://www.data.gov/) is the hub for theeffort.
The federal government is very good at amassing data … but not so goodat communicating it.  By lettingothers use the data, that division of labor might change, and – in theory atleast - we all could benefit.
Over at the T, the initial success in September led thegroup to wonder what would happen if real time data were made Open: How wouldthat change the interaction between people and transportation? Could it becomeas easy to answer “Where’s the bus” as “What’s the temperature?”

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.
 “Our sharing of data with developers is similar to our sharing ofa press release ...  In both instances, we rely on third-parties todistribute important information to citizens,” he said.  “We are muchbetter off working with them, rather than competing against them.”  

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.

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