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Thursday, September 27, 2012

Finally: MARTA to release open-source data to third-party developers — possibly in coming weeks


For the last few months, Matt Santy and Ted Bradford have urged MARTA to release the wealth of data it collects — especially the real-time locations of buses and trains — to tech-savvy entrepreneurs and civic-minded developers.

With that info, programmers could create third-party apps that could alert straphangers about service interruptions, bus breakdowns, or simply when the next train would roll into the station. Maybe it could help tourists to better plan trips. (Sure, MARTA offers real-time bus locations on its website. But that's no help for programmers. And those bus icons, while precious, don't cut it.)

Why not? Local governments and agencies in other states have joined the trend of releasing their data, which has made it easier for people to locate public art in Portland, map Chicago's vacant and abandoned houses, and pinpoint schools in New York City, and release the transit agency's data to third-party developers.

Should MARTA follow their examples, Bradford and Santy say, the transit agency could become more user friendly and challenge programmers. And maybe even transform itself in the process.

"Open data is all about overcoming the perception of transit (and MARTA in particular) as being inconvenient and inefficient," Bradford, who lives in East Atlanta, and Santy, an Old Fourth Ward resident, said in an email. "The people that are asking for this data are young, energetic, tech savvy, MARTA riders who want to volunteer their own time to be innovative. MARTA's best bet is to empower the people it serves."

They are not alone. State Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, and a group of community activists yesterday demanded that MARTA's next CEO "embrace the national trend toward open data for use in mobile applications, websites like WalkScore, etc." — a move that they say would "make the system more accessible and convenient to users." The Sierra Club of Georgia has said the same. When CL recently reported on a KPMG audit that called MARTA's economic model unsustainable, several commenters wondered when real-time data would be made available.

Good news: MARTA tells CL that it will, free of charge. And likely very soon — maybe even before the end of the month.

Ben Graham, MARTA's assistant general manager of information technology, told CL in a telephone interview last week that "the data is going to be released."

He said the transit agency has been working with developers over the last several months to determine how the data should be made available to the public. The project, Graham said, is "70 percent" finished.

"MARTA is trying to be progressive in everything we do," he said. "But we want to be sure that the data we give people is meaningful data. How do we sort that out from the tremendous amount of data we gather every day?"

Once the data's collected, Graham said, it's possible that programmers would click on a link on MARTA's website and, after filling out a form, be emailed a password to download the data.

"That's not to restrict anyone," he said. "But to know who's pulling data down. This way I know the demographics of students, Fortune 500 companies, to give them more feedback."

No personal data — for example, what time Jeremiah Hornblower of 123 Spring Street swiped his Breeze Card at the Midtown Station — would be made available, Graham stressed.

And to everyone (myself included) who thought MARTA was killing time until it could find some way to squeeze revenue out of the public data? Graham said he's sensed that since he's been at the transit agency — after all, he notes that MARTA's official app is free.

Maybe next we can convince City Hall to do the same?

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