Greater Greater Washington

What's up with NextBus, part 1: The disappearing app

In December, the popular iPhone application "NextBus DC" suddenly stopped working, with little word from the app developer or anyone else about why. We now know what happened, but the route to having better real-time bus services for riders goes far beyond this particular app.

WMATA contracted years ago with a company, NextBus Inc., to generate predictions for its bus arrivals, and to set up end-user services on wmata.com and a telephone number where riders can get bus predictions. That service is called "NextBus."

Meanwhile, there's another company called NextBus, NextBus Information Systems. As Kytja Weir reported, the 2 companies split a few years back. NextBus Information Systems kept a right to the bus arrival predictions, and offered an API (Application Programming Interface, a way for one computer system to let another access a certain set of data) to AppTight, an Austin company that built the "NextBus DC" app.

The relationship between NextBus Inc. and NextBus Information Systems ended, the data stream AppTight was using disappeared, and the app stopped working. Since the app, both companies, and WMATA's service all bore the brand "NextBus" or "Next Bus," many riders assumed that the actual bus location technology had stopped working, and WMATA did not know where its buses were.

That's not the case, though sometimes it is. There are many steps in the chain of getting real-time bus data, and many places it can fail.

How the bus predictions work

First, buses have GPS devices on board which send the bus's position over WMATA's radio network along with information about which route the bus is operating on. Sometimes an individal device fails, or a driver does not log on with the route information, so WMATA cannot track that one bus. Or, the radio network can go down entirely, and then Metro temporarily has no bus position data.

The data goes to a system, called OrbCAD, in WMATA's central data center, which aggregates the bus data, Kurt Raschke explained. It sends all of that data to NextBus, Inc. which takes the data, uses its own proprietary algorithm to estimate what time the bus will arrive at a stop.

NextBus then powers the web tool on wmata.com, its own nextbus.com site, and the text message and telephone service. NextBus also hands the data back to WMATA, which provides an API for app developers to get bus predictions. In the next part, we'll talk more about this API.

But the "NextBus DC" app was not using this API. Instead, it was using a separate API NextBus, Inc. had set up for NextBus Information systems.

Numerous apps still give you real-time predictions

What does this mean for riders? There are still many ways to still get real-time bus arrival data. One of the best is actually not an iPhone or Android "app" at all, but a mobile-enabled site, nextbus.com/webkit/. Go there, and if your device has GPS, this site will automatically show yout the nearest bus stops and predictions.

On iPhone, there is still the "DC Next Bus" app (not the same as "NextBus DC"); on Android, many readers use "DC Metro Transit Info." There are also many others; post your favorite in the comments.

David Alpert is the founder and editor-in-chief of Greater Greater Washington. 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 now lives with his wife and daughter in Dupont Circle. 

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WMATA's own mobile website, at wmata.com/mobile, also isn't bad and includes NextBus.

by Gavin on Jan 16, 2013 3:11 pm • linkreport

That's not the case, though sometimes it is.
Well, I'm glad we cleared that up.

by Gray's in the Fields on Jan 16, 2013 3:15 pm • linkreport

And here's a direct link to the Android apps:
I've used this app for years. One benefit over the mobile website is the ability to save certain stops as favorites and quickly pull up their predictions without browsing the whole list of routes and stops. It also has predictions from other local systems, including the Circulator.

by Gavin on Jan 16, 2013 3:17 pm • linkreport

So, is there an open API for bus arrival or location data?

by andrew on Jan 16, 2013 3:32 pm • linkreport

I've always just used the mobile site, wmata.nextbus.com, and it's worked like a charm, and it seems faster than the app ever did. Bonus: I pulled it up in Boston and it gave me MBTA bus info automatically.

by springroadintoaction on Jan 16, 2013 3:43 pm • linkreport

It looks like NYC, Boston, and some others are using GTFS-Real Time and providing it to Google. Has their been any talk of WMATA using GTFS-RT and providing to Google? http://transport.kurtraschke.com/2012/11/gtfs-realtime-for-wmata-buses The Google Glass video looks pretty cool because of the GTFS-RT in NYC.

by GP Steve on Jan 16, 2013 3:45 pm • linkreport

I use a app called "DC Metro and Bus" on my IPad and it works well for me..Hey try it on your IPads..hopefully it will works for u guys too!!

by Columbia Pike rider on Jan 16, 2013 4:01 pm • linkreport

Have you heard of the TransLoc app? They do real-time bus data and publish an awesome app. I used it in college. duke.transloc.com

by John M on Jan 16, 2013 4:03 pm • linkreport

I've always just used the mobile site, wmata.nextbus.com, and it's worked like a charm, and it seems faster than the app ever did.

Here! Here! Although there are occasional hiccups such as when it gives you info that a bus isn't coming for 15 or so minutes so instead of waiting, you decide to walk...and two minutes later, the bus passes you by. Ugh....

by HogWash on Jan 16, 2013 4:04 pm • linkreport

Nextbus is hit or miss. Sometimes it works great, but at the end of the lines or in heavy traffic it's kind of useless. I counted like 4 phantom 43s one day at Farragut Sq before giving up and catching an S.

by Alan B. on Jan 16, 2013 4:05 pm • linkreport

standards are great. NYC is a... bit odd... they publish their trains in GTFS-Realtime and their bus predictions in SIRI. Talk about double standards confusing things, but hey, that's a step in the right direction... i hope.

by RC on Jan 16, 2013 4:41 pm • linkreport

Nextbus is hit or miss. I counted like 4 phantom 43s one day at Farragut Sq before giving up and catching an S.

Glad to know it's not just me. Imagine me choosing to walk on home..in the rain..only to watch the bus pass me by..ugh

by HogWash on Jan 16, 2013 4:57 pm • linkreport

I use the Android DC Metro Transit and it is still running fine except the tracking for Circulator went down at the end of December. How is that tracking linked to all of this?

BTW The Favorites is my favorite part of the app!

by C Miller on Jan 16, 2013 5:50 pm • linkreport

Like many in the District, I do not use or own a blackberry or iPhone. So I don't have a favorite app. What I do is just check the wmata site before I leave for the next bus. And if I am at a bus stop and didn't check online, I *used* to call up on my cel and say "next bus" and entered in the stop number etc etc...But now it does not recognize the words "next bus." I guess that's what everyone is talking about. So I request an agent. Today when I did that, the agent said she could not get tracking for that bus, but gave me nevertheless the arrival time for a nearby cross section. (I had told her the stop number.)

This is why the best thing to lobby for is reliable arrival times. People doing their jobs correctly. If over 90% of the people are doing their jobs correctly, then the need for apps and so forth diminishes. There is vast room for improvement, but I don't think too many of us are asking for it.

by Jazzy on Jan 16, 2013 6:03 pm • linkreport

Metro's own NextBus actually works pretty well (better than the phone with its poor voice recognition and do-loops), although it's not an "app". I use another GPS-based site for a shuttle service I use at work and it functions a lot less well--the pm rush hour tends to create problems for their estimation algorithms (I've learned that arrival intervals will drop sharply as the shuttle comes closer) and shuttles tend to briefly disappear in the am. I'd imagine most of these systems are a long way from perfection.

by Rich on Jan 16, 2013 9:25 pm • linkreport

@John M: Transloc?! Are you kidding? That crap never worked for me at Princeton. The predictions suck and the map lies about the bus location. NextBus is far superior. Sorry to break it to you.

by NextBus better on Jan 17, 2013 7:52 am • linkreport

@C Miller
I use the Android DC Metro Transit and it is still running fine except the tracking for Circulator went down at the end of December. How is that tracking linked to all of this?

I also use this app but have not had any problems. Which route are you looking for info on?

The DC Metro Transit app gets its info from the separate nextbus feeds provided by each agency and the WMATA API. Each of the feeds are separate, that's why you can't see different agencies' buses on the same screen. As far as I know it shouldn't be affected by the same issues as the NextBusDC app.

by MLD on Jan 17, 2013 8:35 am • linkreport

@NextBus Better Sounds like you've never used it...

by John M on Jan 17, 2013 8:40 am • linkreport

@Jazzy, you can also use the text system. Text "WMATA [stop number]" to 41411 and it will text you back with a prediction. Works like a charm for me.

I also use the transit screen I set up at Mobility Lab's "Hack Day". My co-workers were so envious that they made me set up ones for different routes...

by Ben on Jan 17, 2013 9:10 am • linkreport

It's interesting that the Metro rail works, but the bus times no longer work.

by Farrah on Jan 17, 2013 12:10 pm • linkreport

Thank you for this. Incredibly useful.

by PM on Jan 17, 2013 12:34 pm • linkreport

The Windows Phone app Transit IQ is still working too.

by McLovin on Jan 18, 2013 6:51 am • linkreport

I use the Anystop app for Android and it stopped working in December as well.

by TJ on Jan 18, 2013 10:05 am • linkreport

I was wondering what happened to the Next Bus app. It would stop working. I have a windows phone and love the Nextbus Web kit.
Thanks

by Terry Hunter on Aug 20, 2013 12:27 pm • linkreport

Next Bus feature stopped working on my Android phone 2 weeks ago. Next Train works just fine. What's going on?

by Stephanie Vittoria on Jan 23, 2014 4:09 pm • linkreport

@Stephanie Vittoria

What app are you using or how are you getting to NextBus? Probably the most reliable way is using Chrome and a link to http://www.nextbus.com/webkit/

by GP Steve on Jan 24, 2014 8:38 am • linkreport

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