Policy by the Numbers

Data for sound policymaking from Google and friends


Transit transparency: Open data in action

Friday, January 27, 2012

A much talked about innovation in public policy recently has been the push to achieve greater transparency and accountability through open government strategies, where the public has access to government information and can participate in co-producing public services. At the Transparency Policy Project we have been investigating the dynamics behind one of the most successful implementations of open government: the disclosure of data by transit agencies in the United States. In just a few years, a rich community has developed around this data, with visionary champions for disclosure inside transit agencies collaborating with eager software developers to deliver multiple ways for riders to access real-time information about transit.

Transit agencies have long used intelligent systems for scheduling and monitoring the location of their vehicles. However, this real-time information had previously been available only to engineers inside agencies, leaving riders with printed timetables and maps that, at best, represent the stated intentions of a complex system that can be disturbed by traffic, weather, personnel issues and even riders themselves.

Recognizing the need for access to this information on-the-go and in digital format, Bibiana McHugh of Portland’s TriMet agency worked with Google in 2006 to integrate timetable data into Google Maps, eventually becoming Google Transit. McHugh went further, publicly releasing TriMet’s operations data: first the static timetables, and eventually real-time, dynamic data feeds of vehicle locations and arrival predictions. Local programmers have responded with great ingenuity, building 44 different consumer-facing applications for the TriMet system, at no cost to the agency.

Other transit agencies have adopted this open data approach with varying outcomes. The most successful agencies work closely with local programmers to understand which data is in demand, troubleshoot and improve the quality of the data feeds. Programmers also make the link between end users and transit agencies by filtering up comments from app users. This iterative feedback loop relies on a champion within the agency to build strong relationships with the local developer community. Of the five transit agencies we studied, Portland’s TriMet and Boston’s MBTA exemplify this approach and have generated the highest ratio of apps per transit rider (see table). Meanwhile, the most reluctant agency to adopt open data, Washington DC’s WMATA, only had 11 apps serving its customers in 2011.

Table: Transit Apps and Ridership by City

The number of apps built by independent developers is important, indicating the variety of options riders have in selecting which interfaces (mobile, desktop, map-based, text, audio) and platforms best fit their needs to access transit information. As we learned from our research on what makes transparency effective, simply providing information is not enough. Format and content matter, and should address the needs of a targeted audience. What we have seen in our study of transit transparency is that local programmers have been the critical intermediaries, taking raw data and generating a variety of information tools that transit agencies could not have imagined on their own. For other open government initiatives to spark this level of innovation and public benefit, they must identify their audience of information intermediaries and foster those relationships.

Posted by Francisca Rojas, research director at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Transparency Policy Project

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