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How the New iPhone Will Expose Cities Lagging on Open Data

This article was published in July of 2012 in the Atlantic, on the Cities “The Big Fix” blog. The article was written by Emily Badger (@embadger).

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How the New iPhone Will Expose Cities Lagging on Open Data

As you probably know by now, Apple is planning to ditch Google Maps when it releases the newest version of the iPhone later this year (a pandemonious event that could come as soon as next month, according to the latest rumors). The company announced back in June plans to produce its own mapping software. This is big news for cartography geeks, but it comes with a catch. Without Google Maps, the new Apple operating system won’t include the transit navigation capability that Google has worked with cities to pioneer over the last seven years.

Apple’s in-house software, in other words, will be able to tell you how to get from LaGuardia to Yankee Stadium by car, but not by public transit. For now, at least, Apple appears to be banking on third-party developers to fill that gap by creating transit tools you can download in the app store. But the strategy relies on a pretty big assumption. Third-party developers need open data to build these tools.

“Of course, that would only work in cities that are actually sharing their data,” says Sean Barbeau, a research associate at the Center for Urban Transportation Research at the University of South Florida.

Many cities still aren’t doing this, including big ones like Atlanta, Phoenix, and Detroit. Along with hundreds of other metros, these cities do provide their transit data directly to Google for use in Google Maps, using a standardized format Google developed known as the General Transit Feed Specification (or GTFS). Giving data to Google is not, however, what developers mean when they talk about “open data.”

Barbeau and others want transit agencies to publicly release their GTFS files to everybody, so that any third-party developer (and not just Google) might turn that raw data into useful apps. Open-data advocates have been calling on transit agencies to do this for years, ever since TriMet in Portland, Oregon, first offered to release its data to Google in 2005. But the arrival of the new iPhone is ramping up the urgency. Once the new operating system rolls out, iPhone users everywhere will lose Google Maps’ transit navigation. And iPhone users in cities like Detroit may not get replacements any time soon.

“This is why people have argued that open data is the best policy,” Barbeau says, “because you can’t really control what large vendors are going to do.”

Transit advocate City-Go-Round maintains a list of the more than 200 transit agencies in the U.S. that still don’t have open data. Its list of the top 10 largest laggards also includes Charlotte and the transportation authorities of Central and South Florida.* In the state of Georgia, there isn’t a single transit agency publicly sharing its data.

“For many of the agencies, it was primarily that they didn’t realize how valuable this was,” says Kari Watkins, an assistant professor at Georgia Tech. “They didn’t realize there were actually that many developers out there who would want to have access to it and who would create these apps for free around the data.”

Some cities have feared the legal and security implications of ceding control over their information. And others have had a more prosaic concern. “They thought if these developers are out there,” Watkins says, “and if they really want our data, should we be making money off it?”

This isn’t quite as crass as it sounds. Most transit agencies are strapped for cash these days, and they can be forgiven for confusing their open data with a revenue stream. But by now dozens of cities have demonstrated that free open data can only help their customers.

Now the Atlanta Regional Commission is finally planning this fall to release data from the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority, in a clearinghouse alongside data from the rest of its regional agencies. Watkins, who has been arguing that case with her students, plans to host a developers conference at Georgia Tech in conjunction with the release to jumpstart the city’s new transit-app ecosystem.

Phoenix’s Public Transit Department says it is also now planning to release publicly all of their data through a portal run by the Valley Metro regional agency, although they don’t yet have a timeline for when that will happen.

The iPhone may ultimately prove to be a catalyst for pushing open data in the cities that are still holdouts. But it also poses another question: Can dozens of transit apps in the iPhone store still serve riders as well as Google Maps?

“The part I worry about is that if this is not an obvious thing, it’s not going to have as big of an impact on mode choice,” Watkins says. Fewer people may spontaneously hop on the bus if they have to first search for and download an app just to tell them that the bus exists. “By having all the directions in the same app the way it is in Google Maps,” she says, “people might actually think ‘well what is this other transit button?’”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post included the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority among a list of agencies that don’t publicly release their GTFS files. The Cincinnati region now does, and aspiring developers can find the data here.