Greater Greater Washington

Nextbus IP, Metro data quality dissuades one developer

Tom Lee has decided to stop developing a NextBus-based application. The good NextBus iPhone application is one factor, but so is the way NextBus data is all wrapped up in royalties, deals, and intellectual property debates.


Image by urbanbohemian.

Metro generates bus location data with GPS devices, then sends that data to NextBus. They're paying NextBus a good amount of money to then run a service for users to access bus predictions. NextBus and "NextBus Information Systems," the licensee which developed the iPhone app, is willing to let others get access to the data, but only if they pay royalty fees. And NextBus Information Systems hasn't hesitated to demand removal of other applications that screen scrape NextBus data. Lee calls this "Nextbus's slightly dodgy inclination to charge Metro, then turn around and charge the people who fund Metro."

NextBus does use their own algorithms to generate predictions, so it's not unfair for them to ask for licensing fees. However, the raw data on the bus locations isn't NextBus's, it's Metro's. It'd be great if Metro took steps to make the raw GPS tracking data available to other developers as well, and to clarify the legal status. People could develop applications like the Circulator "Where's My Bus" which, while not quite as useful as NextBus and its predictions, is still useful.

People could also use the data for research, like Tom's idea to gather data on how often bus routes arrive on time. I once graphed on-time performance for the L2, and could generate more of these and other interesting visualizations with this data. People could compute how much bus bunching takes place, or where buses get delayed most often, and use that knowledge to lobby local jurisdictions to add signal priority and queue jumpers at key points.

Metro isn't making any money off NextBus. If their contract with NextBus gives NextBus exclusive rights to the data, then it's shortchanging riders. If not, Metro should empower others, like Tom Lee, to access bus location data and write valuable software.

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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I would just note how strange it is that Metro is willing to pay NextBus for a service that benefits riders but isn't willing to forego potential revenue to partner with Google Transit and benefit riders.

Which is it? Are you willing to spend money to help the riders or not?

Maybe it's because Metro thinks their trip planner can't be beat.

by Michael Perkins on Aug 13, 2009 10:51 am • linkreport

But...but what if the applications aren't 100% accurate!? *mock horror* People might no longer trust Metro as an infallible institution of perfect execution like they clearly do now. ;)

by Chris S on Aug 13, 2009 11:01 am • linkreport

I've raised this point before regarding the Metro's scheduling data where I said that scheduling data SHOULD be placed into the public domain. I would argue that the same idea holds for the predictions provided to Metro by Nextbus. Metro purchases this information from Nextbus and should be able to place the RESULTS of the calculation into the public domain.

by Cullen on Aug 13, 2009 11:38 am • linkreport

Nextbus is only handy if you are at a bus stop. I'd much rather have a handy ap that shows me where the bus actually is. I can do the estimation myself. Just get me a map with little bus dots generated by the live GPS data.

by Jasper on Aug 13, 2009 11:54 am • linkreport

@Jasper

What do you mean its only useful at the bus stop? I use it all the time from my desk or my home to see when I should leave to catch the bus with minimal waiting.

Also, there is a live view of the buses. E.g. here is the map for the 52 bus.

http://www.nextbus.com/predictor/publicMap.shtml?a=wmata&r=52

You can even watch multiple routes at the same time on this map.

by Chris on Aug 13, 2009 12:30 pm • linkreport

Who writes these articles???? Did anyone actually call NextBus *gasp* and ask if there was going to be a problem writing this iPhone app?? I have not seen any official response from NextBus anywhere regarding these royalty issues in San Francisco. All I see are a bunch of bloggers writing conjecture without any verification. Hell, I looked up NextBus' phone number. Why don't you call 510-995-3200 before writing anything else.

by NextBus rocks on Aug 13, 2009 12:50 pm • linkreport

@ Chris: Hey, that's pretty much what I meant. Didn't know it existed. Thanks.

What I was trying to say is that the estimations are only handy when you don't have other means of tracking the buses. At home, most people have the internet. Not nearly all people have a smart phone capable of handling with internet decently.

What I am wondering about though is what Nextbus gets paid for? What do they actually generate?

by Jasper on Aug 13, 2009 12:56 pm • linkreport

NextBus rocks: I've been in email contact with a developer at Nextbus who explained their licensing setup. He was quite friendly and helpful, but also very clear that any published application that uses Nextbus data would be subject to licensure or royalty requirements. Perhaps you should have clicked through to the linked posts and read them before you assumed that David's post was unsourced.

However, to David's account I would add that my lack of desire to continue developing a Nextbus application is in part due to the good job that Nextbus has done with their own iPhone application. It's quite usable, and I believe that at $3 it's fairly priced. It's helped me catch the bus a few times, and I recommend it to friends. The work that I envisioned doing would be largely redundant; that, combined with the licensing regime, is enough to dissuade me from pursuing it.

by Tom on Aug 13, 2009 1:42 pm • linkreport

One other thing: I'm working through the Nextbus/GTFS disparity with a friend who's handy with GIS, and the situation may not be as bleak as I'd first thought. But it is clear that Nextbus's data, while perhaps not as comprehensive as the WMATA GTFS dataset, is of higher quality. So +1 to David's call to have the Nextbus stop data enter the public domain.

by Tom on Aug 13, 2009 1:55 pm • linkreport

@Chris & @Jasper,

I think that link is a little buggy. The java code only works if you have an old version installed. I updated and I since get an error.

I also noticed problems with the underlying map. Near me, in Alexandria, both South Glebe Road and West Glebe Road are shown as "SR-120". First, only S. Glebe is SR-120 and second, it's not really helpful to have the main roads only listed by route number rather than by name.

The more stable url is:
http://www.nextbus.com/googleMap/googleMap.jsp?a=wmata

You can still get multiple routes mapped on the same map that are updated in (mostly) real time.

And by the way, it's implemented on a Google Map.

I agree. I can't understand WMATA's position on Google Transit or what the deal is with NextBus and the apps. Also, don't really understand why Arlington hasn't signed on.

by Kevin on Aug 13, 2009 4:55 pm • linkreport

Note: the article has some very important facts wrong. There are two separate companies involved: 1) NextBus Inc; and 2) NextBus Information Systems. NextBus Inc is the company that has a contract with WMATA. We generate the prediction data and provide it to users via our website. We also provide a great deal of management tools so that the transit system can be more easily managed. NextBus Information Systems is a separate company. They are the ones who are trying to control other third-party apps.

And by the way, we provide real-time maps on smart phones, such as iPhones. Simply point your phone to wmata.nextbus.com

Michael Smith
Director of Engineering
NextBus Inc.
msmith@nextbus.com

by Michael Smith on Aug 14, 2009 11:20 am • linkreport

Michael: perhaps you can provide some additional clarification. I've been in contact with Nextbus Information Systems. Unless my contact has been badly misrepresenting himself, he claims to be involved with WMATA and/or the iPhone store app. Certainly he seemed knowledgeable about the XML routeconfig documents that I have downloaded and examined from the wmata.nextbus.com website.

The relationship between these two companies seems quite murky. Could you clarify?

by Tom on Aug 14, 2009 11:31 am • linkreport

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