Commuters on public transit want to know two fundamental things: when can I expect the bus or train to pick me up? And when will it drop me off at my destination?
Nowadays, they may also be wondering whether their local transit agency is willing to share that data with others to put it into new and helpful formats.
How likely is it that the arrival and departure information will be available on a site or service other than the official one? That depends on how open your local agency is. In some metro areas, transit agencies make data--routes, schedules, and even real-time vehicle location feeds--available to developers to mash into whatever applications they wish. In others, the agencies lock down their information, claiming it may not be reused without permission or fee.
In local blogs and on transit sites, outrage over agencies and companies that claim ownership of the data is growing. The core argument against locking down such data is that it's collected by or paid for by public, taxpayer-funded agencies and thus should be open to all citizens, and that schedule data by itself is not protectable content. The argument against is that the agencies might be able to profit from using the data if they can maintain control of it. The counter to that is the belief that if the data is open, clever developers will create cool apps that make transit systems more usable, thus increasing ridership and helping transit agencies live up to their charters of moving people around and getting as many private cars as possible off the roads.
Each city and metro area with a transit system is unique, but there are three cases in the U.S. that highlight the way the transit data drama can play out.
New York locks down subway schedules As reported last week at ReadWriteWeb and elsewhere, the New York Metropolitan Transportation Agency believes its public train schedules fall under copyright law and thus applied an interpretation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) to send a takedown notice to the developer of StationStops, an iPhone app that gives people access to train schedules on the Metro-North lines.
According to StationStops developer Chris Schoenfeld, the MTA claims that the StationStops iPhone app (not the Web site) infringes on MTA intellectual property. The MTA, Schoenfeld says, has sent a letter to Apple to get it to remove the app from the iTunes App Store. As of this writing, the $2.99 iPhone app is still available.
Schoenfeld does believe that he and the MTA will come to an agreement for use of the data, even though the initial communications were not promising: the MTA, he says, was asking for royalties on use of the data in arrears, at a price that would basically drive him out of business as an app developer in the category. Schoenfeld and his lawyer say that the data isn't protectable content.
Furthermore, Schoenfeld says the procedure that the MTA said it would use to update data for him and other developers is archaic: the MTA said the agency would send StationStops the schedule data on CD ROM, and that it would send him updates only after receiving paper letters requesting them--guaranteeing that Schoenfeld would never have current data.
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