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Fairfax County reluctant to release open transit data

Fairfax County operates one of the largest suburban bus systems in the region. They could empower mobile app users and software developers to drive more riders to their services by publishing their transit information. Unfortunately, they are letting some misconceptions about open data stop them from taking this valuable step.

Photo by AnneBPhoto on Flickr.

Transit agencies have two separate yet related options for open data. They can release their schedule data publicly using the open General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS), which lets anyone build software applications and perform analyses, like this one of speeds versus stop density. The other is to sign an agreement with Google to be included in Google Transit.

Spokesperson Ellen Kamilakis explained Fairfax's concerns:

The historical problem with GTFS is that it is a Google-owned format. Using it gave all indemnities to Google (and not a lot—if any) to Fairfax. The County Attorney reviewed the license agreement and didn't think it was a good idea. You'll have to ask them [the county attorney] for more detailed information on their POV. There is also a small concern that if we publish the data in that format, we will have to publish it in other formats too, and right now we don't have the resources for that.
Ms. Kamilakis directed further questions to the county-level public affairs team, who said they're "looking into the issue."

It's important to separate out the two issues: a deal with Google, and publishing the data publicly in an open source way.

The GTFS format, while it was developed by Google in partnership with Portland's TriMet transit agency, is an open standard, usable by anyone who wants to publish their data. The specification for the standard is very basic and available to everyone. There is no proprietary technology involved. Governments do not have to sign any kind of agreement with Google or anyone else to publish data in the format.

Fairfax is reluctant to sign an agreement with Google that required indemnity. While we disagree with this decision, we understand their reluctance. But this only applies to participating in Google Transit, not to publishing data, which as above is something the county could do simultaneously or could not do at all.

WMATA has been publishing a feed for months without any Google agreement, and application developers have been able to use that data, though its non-open source friendly legal terms have prevented others. Fairfax could publish its data with no indemnification and no restrictions, as many other agencies have done, with no contract that its lawyers could object to.

If they publish data in the GTFS format, would Fairfax be asked to publish data in other formats? It's possible, but not likely. The GTFS format has become the de facto standard for publishing open transit data. It is very unlikely that many potential users of Fairfax's information would be unsatisfied with GTFS and demand another format. And if someone did, Fairfax would be completely within their rights as good public stewards to refuse requests that place unnecessary burdens on staff to produce formats that are not very popular.

The other issue is Google Transit. At the recent EMBARQ panel, DC CTO Bryan Sivak said that getting Circulator onto Google Transit simply required the will to push through the obstacles from lawyers on both sides. Lawyers' job is to raise all possible concerns about any contract. Sometimes, the job of those working with the lawyers is to determine which of these concerns are too trivial and outweighed by the public interest.

On the other hand, Google really ought to stop asking for indemnification. They don't demand this from Web sites that want to be listed in their index, for example. Open source software developers have been working on OpenTripPlanner, an alternative trip planning system that doesn't require any contracts and indemnification, only open data feeds.

If most US transit agencies release their data in the open GTFS format without license restrictions, before long riders everywhere will be able to plan trips, track their buses and trains, and access other useful transit information using completely open tools that aren't dependent on Google or anyone else. That's good for everyone who lives and works in Fairfax County.

Michael Perkins serves on the Arlington County Transportation Commission, though the views expressed here are his own. He lives in Arlington with his wife and two children. 
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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Funny, they taught me in law school is was the judges job to weigh both sides of an argument -- and lawyers are better at being judges than lay people. But every professions has its biases...

Seriously, though, since the CTO and google are in bed with each other (that is for B******) and not in a good way, can't google just GIVE this format to the USG?

by charlie on Jun 17, 2010 1:34 pm • linkreport

There's nothing to "give." The format is open; there are no royalties, and nobody "owns" the specification. Fairfax can release the data without any legal ramifications whatsoever.

Participating in Google Transit is a different (but closely related) issue. There may be some legal issues there surrounding liabilities (Google doesn't want to be sued if they Fairfax provides them with bad data and they publish it.) However, there is *nothing* stopping them from formatting their timetables in the GTFS format other than their own reluctance.

It's also worth noting that GTFS is the only file format of its type in widespread use.

The printable PDF schedules on their website are arguably more patent-encumbered than GTFS is (and forget about word documents -- those are veritable patent minefields).

by andrew on Jun 17, 2010 2:27 pm • linkreport

What about when they have to release schedule data to Metro for use on the trip planner? I'm sure that has to be converted over.

I don't see their problem with not having a data feed that can be used by developers (and at NO cost to them). It took a while for New York City to open up their data to developers and now they are embracing it. Third party developers can actually provide good tools that would cost the County so much money to provide their own trip planner or anything else.

by Ken Conaway on Jun 17, 2010 4:49 pm • linkreport

I spoke and wrote to Ellen Kamilakis last summer about the benefits of releasing the data for crowdsourcing, pushing all the costs and risks of development out to the people with the most motivation and resources to create useful applications. She was very helpful, quickly providing bus stop geo-coordinates and other info I'd requested. I've found the other folks at FCDOT similarly enthusiastic about helping their public. I suspect if we make a robust case including the points above directly to the public-transit part of FCDOT, we can get this information released soon enough.

by jeffq on Jun 19, 2010 12:42 am • linkreport

Ellen is always helpful with me and very good to work with. The impression I got was that this decision was made at the County level, above Connector or FCDOT, and I gave them ample opportunity to change their policy or provide comment.

I sincerely hope that their offer to look into the matter will result in releasing the data.

by Michael Perkins on Jun 19, 2010 1:04 pm • linkreport

Any updates on this? My colleagues and I are looking at calculating transit accessibility performance metrics using OpenTripPlanner and open data sources ( We have a proof of concept that covers downtown DC using WMATA and circulator data. It would be great to be able to expand it to Fairfax. I know we could add Arlington.

by Mike on May 11, 2011 1:24 pm • linkreport

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