Greater Greater Washington

Transit


WMATA allowed to release bus prediction API

Michael Perkins was able to get a copy of WMATA's NextBus contract, with financial information redacted. Tom Lee scrutinized the contract to try to answer a nagging question: Could WMATA release an open, free data feed of the NextBus predictions if it chose?


Arlington's monitors show real-time train info but only bus schedules currently.

Massachusetts has a trial real-time feed for select buses. That feed provides the locations of buses as well as NextBus's predictions. BART just launched a more extensive API with its real-time train predictions as well as trip planning results.

"NextBus Information Systems," the company that developed the iPhone NextBus app, has demanded removal of other apps that screen scraped NextBus to get the bus arrival times. They pay NextBus for access to the data, and NextBus can legally stop applications from screen scraping their site.

But what about the agencies themselves? They own the transponders on the buses, and are paying NextBus good money for its service ($15,000 a month for WMATA). Yet NextBus uses its own algorithms to make predictions of bus arrival times. DC released the raw locations for the Circulator instead of trying to predict arrival times on its own (since it doesn't contract with NextBus). Would WMATA have to do the same, or could it give developers the prediction data that NextBus computed?

The answer appears to be yes.

Tom writes,

It's possible that I'm missing something, but at this point I think my pre-contract understanding has been validated: WMATA has full rights to the data, which means it can give the data away if it wants to. Now we just need WMATA to give the all-clear! We may also need them to mirror the data or otherwise ensure that Nextbus can't complain that we're unfairly hammering their servers.
If Tom is right, WMATA could set up an API for anyone to pull down NextBus predictions and integrate them into video screens like the ones in the Arlington County offices, mobile apps, or other tools. That is, unless budget cuts force too many layoff in the IT department, one of the ones potentially targeted for reductions in the FY2011 budget.
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. 

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Maybe WMATA bus operations produces this internally--I doubt it--but just getting the bus position versus time records would enable a tremendous capability to visualize bus performance. I can imagine automatically plotting and gathering statistics on whether buses are running ahead or behind schedule, and using that to locate trouble spots or determine how widespread schedule mismatch problems are.

And it would also be useful to quantify Nextbus's accuracy.

by thm on Feb 3, 2010 12:24 pm • linkreport

I realize this isn't directly related to the subject of the article, but why can one see metrobus locations with relation to stops but not metrorail train locations? (with regard to the selected stop) is it a security concern?

by Abraham Moussako on Feb 3, 2010 12:44 pm • linkreport

@Abraham Moussako

The simple answer is that METRO does not publish that info. They certainly have a control room where every train location is indicated.

The buses are using GPS, and that info is easily combined with services such as Google Maps to overlay the locations.

The trains can not use GPS as they are underground most of the time.

by Lou on Feb 3, 2010 12:52 pm • linkreport

Unless I'm reading it incorrectly, they could only release the real time location data, not the predicted arrival data.

There's no reason why a third party couldn't write their own prediction algo, of course, using the real time location data. It doesn't seem particularly difficult to make a reasonable estimate.

by jcm on Feb 3, 2010 1:21 pm • linkreport

A tangential comment perhaps, but why was the financial information redacted? The contract involves public funds, right? Shouldn't the terms be disclosed?

by Tsar Bomba on Feb 3, 2010 1:22 pm • linkreport

When I lived in Liverpool, the downtown bus stations had screens that showed when next buses were arriving and it was very efficient and helpful. I have nothing but praise for this type of system.

by Flood on Feb 3, 2010 1:51 pm • linkreport

@jcm

I agree, I think the contract says that WMATA has rights to the data generated by the transponders, rather than access to the final time predictions.

That said, somebody could create their own algorithm to figure out the times. I don't know if I would characterize that as "not difficult" however. The predictions that NextBus uses are no doubt different depending on the bus route and given their accuracy I bet they are different for each line AND stop.

by MLD on Feb 3, 2010 2:12 pm • linkreport

@MLD: that's a reasonable inference, given Nextbus's previous assertions about their proprietary algorithm. But in this case CIS stands for "Customer Information System" (or service? I forget, but think it's immaterial). I think it would take a strange reading of the bounds of the CIS to think that predictions aren't part of it.

But if they are, that's fine. GPS locations would be welcome, and I'm confident that some clever algorithms could be developed based upon them.

by Tom on Feb 3, 2010 2:22 pm • linkreport

CIS should be defined right up front in the Contract. I would say the definition is central to determining whether it is just a coordinate pair, or processed data, or exactly what it is. Whomever has access to the contract may want to clarify that.

by Lou on Feb 3, 2010 2:33 pm • linkreport

We all have access to the contract - Michael posted it. The link is at the start of the article.

by David Alpert on Feb 3, 2010 2:42 pm • linkreport

@Lou:
It doesn't look like Customer Information System is defined, but it's the name of the entire project. So I guess any data generated by the project is WMATA's.

I think I've figured out the distinction now: the prediction algorithms are not "data." The predictions generated by them are. So I guess you could make an app that just takes those prediction numbers and pushes them through to the app. That doesn't solve the circulator problem though, since those transponder data aren't even fed into the prediction algorithms.

by MLD on Feb 3, 2010 2:42 pm • linkreport

@Lou: yeah, I would've expected it to be defined, too, but the definitions section appears to just be WMATA boilerplate. But things like this

http://skitch.com/sbma44/nu1q7/26194581-nextbus-contract-redacted.pdf-page-95-of-143

Make me think that, as MLD said, the predictions are part of the system data to which WMATA has explicit rights.

by Tom on Feb 3, 2010 2:44 pm • linkreport

In talking to a friend of mine who is pretty highly placed in developing this for METRO, one of their biggest projects was the dedicated IT hook up to NextBus. They are pumping huge amounts of data back and forth from all the bus transponders, and obviously what you see on your screen depends greatly on that pipeline working well. So I think the issue raised earlier about how that data gets mirrored to third parties to protect the basic system from overload is a big concern for METRO.

The question about what kind of data comes back and what it would take for a third party to use it is interesting to me. It's something I'm going to ask next time I have a chance. Having said that, I know that their group over the past few years has developed the next train system, and is working on the expanded cell service. They are a stressed out bunch to say the least, and we try not to talk shop too much when we socialize.

by Lou on Feb 3, 2010 3:16 pm • linkreport

There are already at least two algorithms for predicting bus times. The phone in system and the online system are often several minutes apart (i.e. well more than a rounding error). I've called the phone system while staring at the computer screen to confirm this. (The phone system seems slightly more accurate except when it skips buses that are clearly on the online system.)

My assumption is that both predictions are made by NextBus, but perhaps Metro is already handling one of these predictions?

by Dan on Feb 4, 2010 11:21 am • linkreport

Arlington Transit has one, and it seems to be pretty accurate.

http://www.commuterpage.com/mobile/realtime.cfm

I like that you can find the stops on either google maps or bing, no matter what your cell phone caters to.

by Rob on Feb 4, 2010 3:24 pm • linkreport

Just wanted to let GGW know that Nextbus Information Systems and Alex Orloff have also attacked developers from DC as well. I am the developer of "find a metro dc" in the iPhone app store. It's $0.99. I originally created it to see if I could actually develop an app. It's done decently well, so now I work on it in my spare time and commute with Metro to work everyday.

Back in July, out of the blue, Alex Orloff of NextBus Information Systems demanded that I remove bus arrival time features from my iPhone app, "find a metro dc." He sent rude and demanding e-mails and was angry when I didn't respond within five hours. All my app does let a user enter a bus stop id which are on all of the signs around the DC metro area and call up a corresponding web page from wmata.nextbus.com. It also saves the bus stop ids so you can call them up when you relaunch the app. (I am unable to provide a user with the closest bus stops because i would need an API to go through all 12,000 stops.) He was angry because NextBus DC the iPhone app had just launched at the time I guess.

I asked for Alex to provide any sort of contract clause which provided him with the right to demand any sort of licensing fees and was unable to do so. He continued to send me demanding e-mails without providing any sort of support, but eventually stopped bothering me. I am very glad that Michael Perkins has gone through the trouble to get this contract to the public.

In addition, back in July, I discovered that developers of the NextBus DC app had posted disparaging reviews of my app in the App Store and saved a screenshot of their ridiculous reviews. (See http://jrbapps.com/apptightreview.jpg) When I asked Alex Orloff about it, I found that some were removed within the day and others changed to be slightly less disparaging so that made it clear that he was affiliated with the reviews. See iCommute SF and NextBus DC. Both apps were developed by the same developers. iCommute SF's main competitor is Routesy in San Francisco. I noticed that iCommute SF, NextBus DC and my app all had reviews posted by the same people. The iCommute SF and NextBus DC apps had glowing reviews of their own app right at launch time and 1 star reviews of my app all written by the same usernames.

In short, Alex Orloff and NBIS simply do not know how to properly negotiate or talk with others without coming off as completely unprofessional and rude. I might have been willing to talk to him, but he absolutely infuriated me and I know he also did so to Routesy in San Francisco. I doubt he will be willing to help anyone out here in DC and I think we need to look to WMATA.

No matter what, I don't ever plan on purchasing the iPhone NextBus DC and I hope others don't either knowing my story. In fact, if you already have, delete it.

John, jrbapps
http://www.jrbapps.com
twitter: @findametrodc

by John on Feb 5, 2010 9:49 am • linkreport

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