Greater Greater Washington

Zimmerman and Linton on innovation

At Thursday's Metro Board meeting, issues around open access to data arose twice, once around NextBus and once around schedule data and Google Transit. Both times, Board member Chris Zimmerman of Arlington advocated for Metro to take an encouraging stance toward innovation, while alternate Board member Gordon Linton of Maryland suggested Metro should limit access to information until and unless they can work out legal contracts to protect potential future sources of revenue.


Zimmerman (left) and Linton (right). Image from WMATA.

This is a complex issue spanning two related but separate topics. First, should Metro do a deal with Google, a big company that might make some money from ads while riders use its service? Second, should Metro enable other, smaller developers to create applications, whether or not they make money? The issues are related and, more importantly, often get tangled up with each other. Today, I've transcribed the debates at the Metro board. In upcoming days, I'll boil down the key arguments and explain why Linton's point of view misses the forest for the trees.

First, Metro staff presented the NextBus summary we discussed last week. Zimmerman asked whether Metro can allow developers to build innovative tools using NextBus data. The exchange begins at 1:14:48 in this audio stream.

I'm told that there are bars in Portland, Oregon where they have digital displays, and you can be sitting there right up until the streetcar is coming so you can run and catch the streetcar. We heard sometime last year about something in Chicago, an application that can call your cell phone [when your bus is coming]. These were being done by outside third parties tapping into the information and making it more generally available. Can we do that here?
Staff replied that they weren't sure, but would look into the possibility. Zimmerman continued,
To the extent that we can leverage this to increase the communication out there, increase the accessibility of the system, that would increase awareness. All the people who aren't using the thing say "What's that?" and "That's cool!" and you could pick up customers that way.
Linton spoke up to point out that there might also be licensing issues. But should licensing issues prevent any progress? Zimmerman:
While it's always good to be looking for how we can make any revenue we can to offset the cost of subsidies and fares, it would be a shame to get ourselves so tied up in what might not be a significant revenue stream that we miss the larger thing. Getting a customer on that pays a fare to fill a bus that's not full could be worth a lot more to us, potentially.

Many of of these kinds of applications aren't making a lot of money for anybody. One example that I heard of is some graduate student; basically it's a hobby. They do i for fun. Somebody sometimes money and a lot of them don't. Our fundamental biz is transportation, and to the extent that we can do that better and get more customers, that's where our emphasis ought to be.

Linton, a former FTA administrator and now private transportation consultant, didn't agree.
That is our fundamental business, but we don't have that business unless we have revenue to support it. My experience has always been that we tend to underestimate and overlook the revenue implications of this. When we were looking at the idea to have car rental services, I suggested that we explore it and what I heard was that this was a service that we provide to our users. Just by exploring it we found that there was revenue.

We always need to look and not assume that just because you provide a service that someobdy's not generating income. And since I am on the other side of this equation I know how people are out there generating income. Transit agencies I have supported for my entire career are always begging for money, but do not value their resources, and others do who are lining their pockets.

Zimmerman:
I would point out, though that your example is instructive. You're talking about car sharing. When we started that we just provided the space, and we didnt get any money back. More recently, we have been able to make arrangements that do provide us some money back, but when they first walked in here to do car sharing, there was no money to be made. Nobody was making anything. It was important to get it seeded and started to a point where someondey is making money and we can share in it.

If nobody is doing it then nobody is making any money on it. It's very important to protect our long-term interests. But again, if it doesn't get started, if it doesn't happen, then there's no value created. And I think we need to find a way to get these things started. In the long term if there is a flow of revenue that's significant, we should be tapping some of it. But this won't happen if we don't help stimulate it in the first place.

Linton:
It's not a matter of not starting it, it's a matter of how you structure your deal. [It's fine if] the deal allows you to get the revenue that's generated, recognizing that for startups there's no revenue. I created public-private partnerships when I was at the FTA. They create a structure for innovation but at the same time recognize that at a point of innovation when we have a spinoff and rev starts to be generated, you should therefore start sharing in the revenues at that time.
Next: The debate over Google Transit, a few hours later.
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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. 

Comments

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This is all about misguided ownership. WMATA is doing a terrible job providing information about its system. I maintain my example that it was easier for me to figure out the Kyoto bus system without reading Japanese than figuring out the DC system.

However, WMATA is determined to not allow others to give it a try and succeed where it failed. It could be happy with the nice initiatives of third parties that would get extra riders. In stead, it prefers to stifle that innovation, by demanding a part of the profits.

That is an unfair proposition. You can not get profits without investment.

Furthermore, WMATA should realize that it is not the owner of the data. The riders and tax payers are.

by Jasper on Sep 28, 2009 2:03 pm • linkreport

The board should have tried to get Zimmerman to be GM. He is the type of forward thinking person that WMATA needs.

Oh well, in 3 years WMATA will be in a California-like state and the one solution will be to blow it up and begin a RTA a la CTA/SEPTA/MTA-NY/MBTA. Something functional and modern without backwards thinking.

by Jason on Sep 28, 2009 2:06 pm • linkreport

who appointed linton to the FTA?

by IMGoph on Sep 28, 2009 8:47 pm • linkreport

Jasper:

That is an unfair proposition. You can not get profits without investment.

Excuse me. WMATA has tens of billions of dollars invested in the infrastructure of their system.

Turning over scheduling data to Google Transit with no opportunity to profit from it would be akin to letting the Ford Motor Company put Chevrolet LS7 engines, without compensation, in Mustangs.

by Sand Box John on Sep 28, 2009 10:57 pm • linkreport

Sand Box John:
Making WMATA meeting minutes available to blogs like GreaterGreaterWashington with no opportunity to profit from them would be akin to letting Hitler build Soviet T-34 tanks in Germany, without compensation.

See kids? Creating dead-wrong and completely unrelated analogies is fun for the whole family!

WMATA is supported by local area taxpayers, by federal capital expenditures, and by riders. Scheduling data is not an exclusive, tangible good. Infinite copies can be made at no expense, and minimal expense(which WMATA have already applied) is necessary to keep it public and up to date compared to that necessary for normal operation. It is provided as a means of facilitating riders to use the service WMATA provide - transit.

The information should be(and probably would be, if it went to court) in the public domain, no matter who benefits from that. This is probably meaningless bureaucratic infighting, not a coherent adversary position.

I interpret it that way because the alternative is not nice. The logic goes like this: WMATA makes clear it can't be sued for a late bus (sovereign immunity), unless it deigns to accept the case. WMATA tells developers that they will pay settlement and legal fees if WMATA is sued.

That combination means that WMATA can extort whate1ver they want from developers - features, revenue, anything; on pain of WMATA allowing a lawsuit to go through. Developers, by the way, include everything from a college student with an interest in GIS (me) to Google. Whether the legal team at WMATA intended it as a chilling effect on anyone actually presenting the data, or as boilerplate CYA, that's what it amounts to for people like me, and evidently for Google.

by Squalish on Sep 28, 2009 11:52 pm • linkreport

Any restriction on use compelling enough to get Google to offer profit-sharing, by its nature, prevents tiny for-profit developers without a legal budget from getting in the game. That's how the "two related but separate topics" are unified.

by Squalish on Sep 28, 2009 11:59 pm • linkreport

Squalish:
Making WMATA meeting minutes available to blogs like GreaterGreaterWashington with no opportunity to profit from them would be akin to letting Hitler build Soviet T-34 tanks in Germany, without compensation.

See kids? Creating dead-wrong and completely unrelated analogies is fun for the whole family!

Analogy is correct. Minutes of public meetings are a matter of public record, scheduling data for use by others for the propose profit is not.

By throwing their scheduling data out for all to exploit for profit, WMATA is surrendering a potential revenue source.

The more I listen to this argument the closer I come to agreeing with WMATA position.

by Sand Box John on Sep 29, 2009 1:21 am • linkreport

It's scheduling data. Why shouldn't it be?

What about "potential revenue source" equates to "worth a $500,000 study" or "worth denying customers access to better scheduling applications" or hell, even "worth denying the Metro board access to a few hours of free analysis from the blogosphere"? The amount of money we're talking about might buy the Board an end-of-month pizza party. It will never pay for a lawyer to negotiate a profit-sharing scheme (which I don't think Google wants to do at all, to avoid precedents), much less justify the decrease in ridership from people who don't find Metro as convenient as it should be.

by Squalish on Sep 29, 2009 2:14 am • linkreport

Squalish:

"worth a $500,000 study"

WMATA is a government agency. Government agency do studies to determine a coarse of action.

We Meet And Talk Alot

by Sand Box John on Sep 29, 2009 10:26 am • linkreport

A basis for all of this discussion is the fact that WMATA's trip planner works badly. Too often that point is lost in the debate.

We know that Google Transit can provide good service for free. Other developers may also provide useful tools for free.

WMATA should weight the risk of lawsuit and theoretical loss of ad revenue against the cost of providing an adequate trip planner.

by betrokken burger on Sep 29, 2009 1:13 pm • linkreport

Someone needs to forward all this to the mainstream press. I think that someone (at the very least the Examiner since they hate WMATA) would want to out this to your average Joe and Jane rider to make them aware.

RTA NOW!!

by Jason on Sep 29, 2009 4:18 pm • linkreport

Sand Box John:
The Committee To Decide What We Want On Our Pizza has settled into year 3 of their deliberations. The original compromise position of sausage and pepperoni fell apart after six months, when a study indicated that putting sausage on half of the pizza and pepperoni on the other might be preferable in fixing the gaping hole in this year's budget - we are proud to predict that a consensus on this position will be announced at next month's Metro Matters alongside a request for local governments to pitch in more money. The committee decided to expand its appropriations request this year in order to employ three more outside consultants which will release a report describing how to evolve its focus beyond the traditional topping front to an investigation of whether a further budgetary reduction can be made by modifying the style of crust. It's tireless work, but saving our transit system from economic meltdown is worth it.

by Squalish on Sep 30, 2009 3:58 am • linkreport

If there were profit for Google to make from the data, the Google geniuses would have already written software to download the PDF's off the WMATA website and scrape the data out.

But the revenue benefit in this arrangement is increased ridership on Metro (fares, plus eyeballs on ads in the system), not the the negligible increased ad revenue on the Google Maps site. Retail stores don't charge Google to post their hours, specials, menus, events, etc -- and that information is just as valuable intellectual property as WMATA's schedules. No, the stores value widespread access to that kind of information because it drives business. If anything, Google should charge the stores for the advertising space.

WMATA needs to focus on driving revenue by putting butts in empty bus seats, not worry about whether Google's making a couple of pennies here and there showing their data.

by Novanglus on Dec 28, 2009 5:00 pm • linkreport

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