Boston's real-time transit data: "Better than winning the World Series"

Laurel Ruma loves the Red Sox, but she's an even bigger fan of open data.

What happens when you combine two risk-taking government employees,
an active developer community, and a bus schedule? Unlimited amounts
of innovation, improved customer service, praise for an embattled
government agency, and a model for building a government/citizen
developer partnership. Hear how the Massachusetts Department of
Transportation
learned from TriMet that open is better.

That was the pitch
for Laurel Ruma’s Ignite Gov talk. Ruma, who works at O’Reilly, is the co-chair
of the upcoming Where 2.0
conference, which will focus on innovation in open data, civic
innovation and geolocation, along with many other aspects of mobile
technology.

“This was the best thing the MBTA had done in its history,” said Ruma,
exploring the backstory behind the Massachusetts Bay Transit
Authority’s (MBTA) move to make
real-time data available
.

The decision to release and support open transit data online has
spawned a new ecosystem of mobile applications, many of which are featured at MBTA.com. The addition of
real-time transit data could add more value to the apps
offering help for MBTA riders
that went online in 2009, like the
Mass Transit app
that has been making money for SparkFish Creative.

While some diehard Red Sox fans might differ with Ruma on whether real-time transit data is better than breaking the Curse in 2004, even
the most hardened New Englander can see the value in knowing when the next T is going to arrive. Or, as cynical Boston mass transit commuters might hasten to add, when it won’t.

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  • http://twitter.com/sarahebourne Sarah Bourne

    Nice presentation by Laurel. I commute into Boston daily using the T, and I can attest first hand that real time data makes a huge difference. I’m going to be especially glad when those winter winds start blowing, and I’ll know if I’m going to be standing on the street corner for 5 minutes, or 25. (My bus doesn’t run very often.)

    There’s only so much you can squeeze into an Ignite session, so there’s one part of the story she didn’t get to that I think is particularly important. Some folks think it was just a case of turning on the spigot and off we go to the app races. But it was actually trickier than that.

    The MBTA had the data, but not all in one tidy place. Getting all the data from its various sources, whipping into usable shape (formatting and APIs and all) and then providing a reliable Internet pipe took money as well as staff hours. And time.

    Anyone thinking of replicating this for their local transit should be prepared to have to make a compelling case for why money and effort should be spent on it, as opposed to things like buying new buses or spending more on maintenance or security.

    (Note: Although I work for the state, I do not work for the MBTA or MassDOT; I can claim no credit for this project. I do get to reap the benefits!)