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Innovation resistance at Metro, part 1: The value of "bottom-up"

Yesterday, you saw the exchanges between Metro Directors Chris Zimmerman of Arlington and Gordon Linton of Maryland on open APIs and Google Transit. Linton wants to lock down all licensing issues before allowing new applications that use the bus position data (as NextBus does) or schedule data (like Google Transit), while Zimmerman advocated for "seeding" innovation and worrying about revenue later.

Photo by Mike Schmid.

To recap, there are two issues here. First, should Metro release its data generally to developers? They've released schedule data but under an unnecessarily restrictive license, and haven't released the bus position data at all. Second, should Metro try harder to work out a deal with Google to include Washington area transit directions in Google Maps, as every other large U.S. transit agency has done?

The Zimmerman-Linton exchange very clearly illustrates the dichotomy between the "open-source" philosophy and one of centralized control, or a "bottom-up" verus "top-down" attitude toward innovation. Writer and computer scientist Tim Lee discusses this issue frequently on his blog, Bottom-up. He explains, "The last couple of decades have brought us the dominance of the open Internet, the increasing success of free software," largely in Silicon Valley, "a place with extremely low barriers to entry, a culture of liberal information sharing, and a respect for the power of individual entrepreneurs." Because anyone can just make a Web site, write software for Windows, or sell a neat electronic gizmo (unless you want to connect it to a mobile phone network), we've had enormous innovation in these areas. It's precisely the absence of a gatekeeper who approves everything ahead of time that has enabled innovation to flourish.

Bottom-up thinking upset the established order when it hit the software industry in the form of open source software, and it's even more revolutionary in an agency like Metro, which tends to approach issues from a top-down point of view. Need some new railcars? Bid out a contract. Want to create an online system to track bus locations? Bid out a contract. For railcar procurement, there's nothing wrong with this strategy. But for consumer information technology, where you don't need only one type of railcar, this approach fails to stimulate innovation.

Opening up data allows both large companies and small "garage" developers to build applications. The policies of an organization affect both, but the economic forces affecting these are very different. If a larger company is going to work with Metro, they'll probably only do it if there's some money in it, which means they're willing to spend some lawyer time upfront to negotiate a good contract. Transaction costs aren't good, but they won't necessarily derail the project entirely.

A garage developer, on the other hand, is probably doing the project in his spare time, for fun. Even if there's the possibility of making some money, such as selling the app for $5 a pop in the iPhone app store, it's not going to be a major source of profit. Most likely, those fees won't even come close to compensating the author for his or her time. If he'd put the same amount of time into working for a tech company, he'd make way more. He might even have made more working at McDonald's than spending the equivalent amount of time on the application.

This is one fallacy in Gordon Linton's admonishment that someone out there might be "lining their pockets." Perhaps sometimes that's the case, but most of the time they're lining those pockets with enough to buy a nice lunch.

Because the money is a secondary consideration at best, the transaction cost is a huge deterrent. If the developer has to even spend one afternoon negotiating with Metro, it's a big burden. To Metro, it's no big deal to put weeks into carefully assembling a deal. To the developer, the thing could have been done already. Therefore, most people won't even bother. There are plenty of neat ideas out there that could make a good app. Why build the one that forces you to waste a lot of time not programming when you can just start coding on something else? Programmers want to be programming, not negotiating with bureaucracy.

That's why the best policy for Metro is to make it very painless to participate. The Boston MBTA, Chicago CTA, Portland TriMet and others have created developer resources pages to help developers get started. Agencies need to keep well-meaning lawyers who don't understand the real costs of their involvement away from this. The best way to do that is to create a standard license agreement anyone can sign on to, one that doesn't demand payment, indemnification, or any other cost present or future.

There's a large benefit to riders of having these apps, and a very small potential revenue source. Trying to grab the revenue just kills the projects (and wipes out the revenue as well). Linton worried about people making money off bus position data. But right now, as Zimmerman noted, nobody is building any apps, period, and nobody is making any money anyway. Nobody wins that way.

Next: But what about Google and their billions of dollars?

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. 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 two children in Dupont Circle. 


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not sure if I like this framing.

Google (and others) are making a well financed, well played (from a PR), attack on providing information that governments have failed to meet. There are a lot of legitimate questions on whether this is a good idea. Most of they key players (the vivek kundras of the world) are being bought and paid for with google money.

WMATA's problems isn't about access to technology or information: it is just disdain for their consumers. That is reflected in a thousand different ways, and is really driven that a huge part of their customer base (government workers) are effectively locked into using WMATA through massive subsidies.

by charlie on Sep 29, 2009 3:20 pm • linkreport

third to last paragraph—ends with "why build the one that," and then we're left hanging.

by IMGoph on Sep 29, 2009 3:48 pm • linkreport

can someone from WMATA or from anywhere else explain what makes WMATA's data so much more special than say the data from the District Government which is available to everyone and anyone ( )? Or DC's Apps for Democracy contests ( )

As District taxpayer and Metro rider, I pay for both. Why should I or anyone else have to pay for either of them again?

WMATA is NOT a private transportation company; they are taxpayer-funded multi-jurisdictional government transportation agency. End of story.

by dcvoterboy on Sep 29, 2009 3:50 pm • linkreport

It's a different group of folks in charge of the data, a group that has seen all sources of revenue held steady while costs skyrocket. This group has been given the charge to try to find whatever scraps of revenue they can. I don't blame them for trying, but I think the Board should step in and make an exception in this case. I think the benefit to the riders and potential riders will exceed whatever revenue they'll be able to get, less the goodwill they're losing by continuing this battle.

by Michael Perkins on Sep 29, 2009 3:57 pm • linkreport

Yes, I think we all understand WMATA's desire for more revenue in the narrow sense, but choose your phrase: Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater; don't cut your nose off to spite your face; too far in the forest to see the trees; etc.

The simple fact seems blindingly obvious - trying to maximize revenue in this fashion is stifling the availability of information, and thus the usefulness to riders. The focus on revenue has detracted from Metro's larger mission.

by Alex B. on Sep 29, 2009 3:59 pm • linkreport

If Circulator has released their data, why haven't they dealt with Google yet? Might be of good use in some way.

I think it's time for everyone around WMATA to embarrass them further and to join Google Transit without them. DASH and CUE have done it, ART's probably next, that would leave Ride On, Fairfax Connector, and PG County's TheBus as the last holdouts. How about we pressure them yet and make Metro look bad in the public eye?

by Jason on Sep 29, 2009 4:00 pm • linkreport

Arlington Transit and Fairfax Transit have told me that they are not going to do it because of the need to sign an agreement with Google. Both agencies are risk averse and don't want to sign an agreement involving indemnity. How 80+% of the rest of the country has been able to do this without the involvement of lawyers is beyond me.

I spoke to a transit agency in California that signed the agreement basically without reading it. They were directed by their governing board to get Google Transit, and they did it right away.

by Michael Perkins on Sep 29, 2009 4:10 pm • linkreport

@Michael Shame on ART and Fairfax Connector. Who was the contact who told you this so I can tell them to buzz off? Risk averse people need to get the hell away from transit because the transit in this area is subpar.

I swear the apes at the zoo could run transit better.

RTA NOW!! Abolish WMATA, Ride On, ART, Fairfax Connector*, DASH, CUE, TheBus.

* Unhappy Birthday to Fairfax Connector. 24 years of not taking risks and I hope they don't make it to their 25th without their management being fired.

by Jason on Sep 29, 2009 4:14 pm • linkreport

IMGoph: Fixed, thanks.

by David Alpert on Sep 29, 2009 4:20 pm • linkreport

I would argue that providing such things as timetables etc are part of the core mission of metro. WMATA is dysfunctional, and struggles to provide even this. Ordinarily, WMATA should be PAYING someone to provide this service, since it cannot do so itself. Google and others offer to do it for free, and WMATA has the Chutzpah to ask to be paid. Meanwhile, instead of getting that data out there, and providing a service, Metro continues to lose public support

by SJE on Sep 29, 2009 4:48 pm • linkreport

Just a little thought here: Make the Metro Board of Directors all elected by the people in their jurisdictions. Poor service on your watch - out you go!

by Chuck Coleman on Sep 29, 2009 6:54 pm • linkreport

The article says "There's a large benefit to riders of having these apps, and a very small potential revenue source." But neither you nor I nor metro knows exactly what this data is worth. We all know it's valuable, why not allow metro to find out just how valuable, and whether the public benefit of a free data feed exceeds this number?

I'd like a better trip planner, but I don't care if it's on Google, or Bing, or if metro builds it themselves. Criticizing a cash strapped agency for carefully evaluating before throwing away potential revenue seems short sighted to me.

by jcm on Sep 29, 2009 11:04 pm • linkreport


I know, seriously. Why don't we charge people for access to traffic cams? We need the money for roads, and people want to know what the traffic is like. So what if we already pay taxes and tolls to use the roads? We should just charge all the news outlets that link into the traffic cams to make a little extra cash on the side.


by Adam L on Sep 30, 2009 2:22 am • linkreport

JCM "Criticizing a cash strapped agency for carefully evaluating before throwing away potential revenue seems short sighted to me"

Yes, but
1. Said cash-strapped agency is spending $500K on a "study." Why not let the data be free at first, let others present the data in a form that can be commercialized, and THEN see how much people will pay for it via an auction.
2. While WMATA is doing its study and messing about, we consumers are denied important information. It has been, what, almost a year?

by SJE on Sep 30, 2009 11:29 am • linkreport

Why nobody in the mainstream press has investigated this miffs the mind. Metro's been kicked down enough, why not have someone go for the kill with a piece on this? I know the Examiner would be interested.


by Jason on Sep 30, 2009 11:45 am • linkreport

Yeah unfortunately ART is nowhere near signing with Google Transit. I've emailed all of them a few times about this before and to me it sounds like they won't do it before wmata does.

by James on Sep 30, 2009 12:37 pm • linkreport

The FCC provides license data of all kinds at their site; but it's a PITA to find things.

Other folks, such as, create and provide better interfaces. I'm hard pressed to see what's wrong with that...

by George B on Oct 1, 2009 3:03 pm • linkreport

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