Greater Greater Washington

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Metro endorses openness for schedule data

At Thursday's board meeting, I spoke about Google Transit and the broader issues of communication at Metro. Chief Administrative Officer Emeka Moneme stated unequivocally that Metro agrees with the principle of making schedule data available beyond just wmata.com:


Photo by sudama on Flickr.
Board Chair Chris Zimmerman of Arlington: Is it your view that this is potentially a very valuable thing for this agency, to be able to conclude some kind of deal with Google?

Moneme: I'll be even broader ... it's not necessarily about working with Google, that's one of the many partners that we think we could work with. ... Making our information available for whomever out there that does manipulation of information to make or create applications, for example, for people's PDAs, having a relationship with them would be good not just for us, but for our ridership and for the region. So it's a direction we want to move in.

Zimmerman: So your goal is to be able to get information as broadly available as possible through whatever devices our [riders] are using?

M: Absolutely, whether we do it ourselves of our own volition, through our website, or with a partner that can provide that service.

Congratulations to the 774 people (and counting) who signed the petition! You've made a big impact. Metro has agreed in principle that making this information available to all is a goal. The campaign generated some even generated some major press stories, and got the attention of at least three Maryland state legislators. One, Bill Frick of Bethesda, followed up with a letter to WMATA General Manager John Catoe:
As the Washington region prepares to host as many as 3 to 4 million visitors this January, it is in all of our interests to disseminate information about public transit options as quickly as possible.

Based on public statements by WMATA officials, the Authority is withholding this data principally in order to extract or protect ad revenue that it believes would inure to Google's benefit. This is myopic. WMATA is not in the online advertising business. It is in the transportation business. Inclusion in Google Transit will help WMATA perform this core function for many more individualsand, it bears noting, increase fare collections as a result.

I urge you to reconsider your position.

Still, we have to keep pushing Metro to turn this general principle into action. Moneme didn't actually endorse releasing the data to anyone without cost. By couching his statement in the language of "working with partners," he kept the door open to requirements that any such partner pay, negotiate detailed contracts, meet any technical demands, and more. Bureaucratic organizations often prefer this deal-oriented, tightly-controlled route, but that impedes real innovation, which might come from an individual without the time or resources to negotiate a complex agreement with WMATA.

Moneme justified this control as a way to ensure accuracy:

Zimmerman: Is the kind of thing you're concerned about, that if people use these services to get information which they believe comes from the transit agency and is reliable, if there's some problem with that and they encounter difficulties on an individual basis which they then attribute to us ... Are these the kinds of things we're talking about?

Moneme: Absolutely. Any information that is related to riding our system, we believe impacts our brand, so we want to make sure it's accurate, that it gets people to where they need to get to in the most efficient manner, provides them with accurate information about the costs or price of our services. That's essentially the bar or standard that we want to make sure we achieve.

Innovation can be a messy thing, sometimes, and even a little bit scary. New tools make far more information available to individuals, but sometimes at the cost of accuracy. Online maps sometimes have the wrong addresses for businesses. The Web sometimes convinces a person of incorrect information. But taking away the information isn't the answer.

These arguments on both sides follow very familiar open systems vs. closed control lines. Mobile phone carriers long argued against letting developers build applications freely, as they can on conventional computers, arguing that they were "protecting the network". When the World Wide Web was in its infancy, online services like Prodigy and, later, AOL claimed that the controlled, managed environment they created was better for users. Users disagreed. Metro's reluctance to allow innovation that they don't control is similarly shortsighted.

We've made a lot of progress in just one week. From refusing to even talk about Google Transit, to arguing that riders should only use the Metro trip planner, to seeing schedule data as a revenue opportunity instead of a service to riders, WMATA officials now acknowledge that greater availability and openness is their goal. They're never going to move with Internet speed, but we can continue to push and encourage them to move faster than typical bureaucracy speed. The 774 individuals who signed the petition moved this issue forward one huge step.

David Alpert is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Greater Greater Washington and Greater Greater Education. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He loves the area which is, in many ways, greater than those others, and wants to see it become even greater. 

Comments

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This is good news, Dave. But the question remains... how long do you think it will take before it could ACTUALLY get implemented?

by Matt Glazewski on Dec 22, 2008 7:53 am • linkreport

their worried about Google affecting their brand image? why don't they let Google do the software engineering and focus on things that really affect their image like, say, running buses somewhere close to on time?

by dano on Dec 22, 2008 8:17 am • linkreport

The concern about accuracy is made a little funny by all of the errors on Metro's official map. Take a close look at either the route map with street addresses of stations (the one in stations and trains) or the neighborhood maps. Riddled with typographical and spelling errors.

by Adam on Dec 22, 2008 8:27 am • linkreport

Not sure if this is the place to gripe about this but so far Metro has not been very helpful. When it comes to accuracy the Smart Trip system is overcharging PG County "The Bus" riders when they transfer from the rail to MetroBus. I've complained 4 times and gotten nowhere fast. The response has ranged from arrogance to denial. This is what happens -- if a rider catches the PG County Bus, then rides the rail, and transfers to a MetroBus they instead of the normal rail to bus transfer rate of 35 cents they are charged 50 cents. At first they said it was because riders had to pay the difference between the two systems, period. It did not matter that you were transfering from rail to bus. On October 26th "The Bus" fare went up to $1.00. Based on Metro's initial statement anyone that caught PG County The Bus first should now pay 25 cent. Wrong. Riders still pay 50 cent. Metro's response. Not their fault The Bus decided to go up to a dollar, they're not acknowledging it. So now riders are paying $1.50 to ride. Can you please investigate this? With riders being forced to use Smart Trip there should be better accuracy and accountability.

by Alvira on Dec 22, 2008 2:44 pm • linkreport

Alvira, could you please email me more information about this at michaelp@ggwash.org? I'll call Metro as well as PG County transit to see what's up.

What I think you're saying is that you ride like this:

The Bus -> Metrorail -> Metrobus

and for the metrobus portion of your journey you're being charged $0.50. Is that right?

by Michael Perkins on Dec 22, 2008 3:43 pm • linkreport

By the way, Obama commemorative cards are now available. There's only going to be 35,000 of these, so they'll probably be gone soon after it hits the real media. DCist has the story:

http://dcist.com/2008/12/22/all_the_smartrip_news_you_can_use.php

by Michael Perkins on Dec 22, 2008 3:54 pm • linkreport

... aaand they're already on eBay for $40 "buy it now". Sweet.

by Michael Perkins on Dec 22, 2008 5:17 pm • linkreport

Problem with technology accuracy?????

Google has provide this service with other transit agencies. Why should this be a problem? Would it be that this will show that WMATA's system itself has major problems?

Would not using Google help visitors who now use Google Transit on their hometown system?

Bob

by Bob on Dec 23, 2008 12:20 pm • linkreport

So many possibilities! WMATA's trip planner just isn't user-friendly, linked, or linkable... plain and simple.

Imagine you're a local business or museum. You could host an embedded Google map on your website with your address as the default destination and visitors can simply enter their starting point and find directions by car, foot, or transit.

You've got a 20-minute wait between buses... you can use Google maps to search for cafes or shops nearby your stop to kill time.

My biggest frustration with WMATA's trip planner is that it doesn't provide an overview or anything visual. I'll get a result telling me that I need to take 3 different buses, but 20 minutes later (after downloading each PDF and entering different starting addresses) I realize I can take 1 bus if I walk 2 extra blocks. With an overview -- like what Google provides -- you can see your options. Maybe I'll walk the extra 3 blocks and skip the first bus, then take a 5 minute taxi instead of the 3rd bus... WMATA doesn't show you your options (and the PDF system map is nearly useless -- ever heard of hyperlinks?) and I, for one, often find myself deciding that I'll just drive or take a taxi the whole way.

With GPS on the iPhone, I could open Google maps and figure out how to get anywhere in the city at any time.

I'd take transit SO MUCH MORE OFTEN if it were easier to navigate. Google may not be perfect, but WMATA is a lot further from perfect now than Google would be. I've been writing Metro for the past year since I fist encountered Google Transit -- we're so close!

by Elizabeth on Dec 30, 2008 12:40 pm • linkreport

I got the answer to Alvira's question listed above. Turns out WMATA was delayed in updating the rules for how much people pay for transferring from PG County buses. The problem has been fixed and people transferring from the $1.00 PG County bus to the $1.25 Metrobus using a Smartrip card will only pay $0.25 for the transfer.

I verified through a friend that people that ride a bus, then a train, then a bus will not have to pay anything to ride the second bus, it's considered a bus transfer.

by Michael Perkins on Jan 29, 2009 7:09 am • linkreport

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