Should Public Transit Systems Open Up Their Data?

from the seems-like-a-good-idea dept

Should public transit data be opened up online for anyone to use? That's the question that's being discussed with regards to the Washington DC Metro's attempt to license its data to Google. Basically, Google has been asking the Metro to open its data up in an open format designed by Google, but which can be used by everyone, and which is quickly becoming the standard for transit info around the world. While the DC Metro has suggested a few objections, in the end it apparently has come down to money. The Metro wants Google to pay up for the data, noting that Google is a for-profit company and the DC Metro is a tax-payer and rider-funded public transportation system that could certainly use more revenue.

However, as others have pointed out, this seems short-sighted. First off, it's hard to come up with a sensible argument for why this data shouldn't already be made as accessible as possible -- especially since it is publicly funded. But, more importantly, by making the data available and letting others do the hard work of making it more useful it should drive more people to ride the Metro, meaning more revenue. Yet, in haggling over a license fee for the data, the Metro hoards the data, makes it more difficult to make that data useful and actually decreases ridership -- and likely overall revenue.
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Filed Under: open data, public transit
Companies: google


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  • identicon
    Kevin Donovan, 23 Dec 2008 @ 12:23am

    TERRORISTS!

    But the terrorists, Mike, they'll use the data to attack us!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    IanK, 23 Dec 2008 @ 12:39am

    I've never read an argument at Techdirt that was for charging Google for access of data. With Techdirt's stance on data availability, and compensation for that data, Techdirt's utopia would be one where Google had access to all books, satellite images, and personal data, made billions of dollars from this data, and not have to pay anything for having all this data.

    Of course, this means Google continues to grow financially, making them far too wealthy (or wealthier than they are already), and have them store and control far too much of our data. You certainly seem to treat them as some sort of volunteer service --- people who are doing this from the bottom of their hearts, rather than because of money and pleasing shareholders.

    If Google is going to make money off something they did not create or collect, then I don't think it's unfair to ask Google to contribute financially to the public transportation system from which they make their profit. After all, the publicly funded transit system are the ones responsible for providing the service and collecting the data.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 23 Dec 2008 @ 1:12am

      Re:

      Um. Need a few bucks, Ian?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Mike (profile), 23 Dec 2008 @ 1:40am

      Re:

      I've never read an argument at Techdirt that was for charging Google for access of data. With Techdirt's stance on data availability, and compensation for that data, Techdirt's utopia would be one where Google had access to all books, satellite images, and personal data, made billions of dollars from this data, and not have to pay anything for having all this data.

      This is not an accurate reading of our position. Our position is that if the data is out there, then anyone (not just Google) can make that data MORE VALUABLE which helps whoever gave out the data. Yes, as an externality, it will also help whoever makes that data useful, but you are wrong to say that Google or whoever doesn't pay anything: they "pay" by creating something useful with the data, making it more valuable.


      Of course, this means Google continues to grow financially, making them far too wealthy (or wealthier than they are already), and have them store and control far too much of our data. You certainly seem to treat them as some sort of volunteer service --- people who are doing this from the bottom of their hearts, rather than because of money and pleasing shareholders.


      Not at all. I just had a post last week where I questioned Google's actions on such things.

      But, you are confused again. This is NOT about just Google. We're asking for the data to be released to anyone. So I'm not sure why you seem to think Google is the only issue here. If Google is doing something bad with the data, then anyone else can do something better.

      And, honestly, what's wrong with Google pleasing its shareholders if it also makes the world better for everyone else? Honestly, I simply don't understand the moral dilemma you have with Google making money if the end result is a better system for everyone else. A good economic transaction is one where everyone's better off. Why are you jealous that someone else is better off if you're well off too?

      If Google is going to make money off something they did not create or collect, then I don't think it's unfair to ask Google to contribute financially to the public transportation system from which they make their profit. After all, the publicly funded transit system are the ones responsible for providing the service and collecting the data.

      They ARE paying. By making the data useful.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Vincent Clement, 23 Dec 2008 @ 7:36am

      Re:

      So what if Google makes money from the data? The data has already been paid for via government subsidies and transit riders. Who will likely use this information on Google? Existing and potential transit riders. Why is DC Metro opposed to free marketing?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    illegalprelude, 23 Dec 2008 @ 12:41am

    Kevin said it best. Even though the data is available, the minute a company like Google takes it and Fox News will be over it with that exact angle.

    But I cannot agree more, if tax payers are paying for it, why not let a competent company like Google take the information and actually give to people they way they digest information, not through 15 year old methods and unusable sites.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Faial, 23 Dec 2008 @ 1:13am

    Google should certainly be paying for the data as they will undoubtedly be making money out of it. If instead Google created a separate product with no advertisement and sniffing on users then the argument of free access could be applicable.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 23 Dec 2008 @ 1:29am

    Disagree

    Many Transit solutions (Bus/Subway/Lightrail/trolly) rely on taxpayer dollars from gas, sales or property taxes.

    If Google wants to increase utilization of a system my neighbors voted for, let them get the damn data. The sooner the whole damn thing is paid off, the better.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    mark, 23 Dec 2008 @ 2:02am

    google by default?

    if you want to talk about money for the data, why not have it opened up in some type of bidding process? google's not the only game in town. if google won't pay, someone will. hell, i'll pay 50 bucks for the data. what happens then? google pays 51 or doesn't. we've established a value.

    if google wants to make the data free by enabling the transit body to host and serve the data (google acting in a consulting capacity), then im all for that, but if google hosts data, tracks users, and serves ads (as faial mentions), its a much different issue.

    google adding value to something just sitting there doesn't warrant them getting it for free. also, the administration costs of working with an organization like this would be prohibitive to the organization, even if they wanted to do it for free (cities are in trouble budget-wise these days anyway). this is another issue altogether, but valid in this discussion.

    so, while the argument that it's public data is valid, and i agree that it would be really useful, google is a company and will pay for it if it's valuable. this is not an altruistic move. it may be my own bias, but it seems that google gets put in this "common good" light much more often than other companies.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Andrew, 23 Dec 2008 @ 4:45am

      Re: google by default?

      Yeah, you should totally pay for the data.

      I mean, you already paid them to make it with taxes, so why not pay for it again to have access to it in a usable format?

      I think that next time I buy a ticket, I'm going to give them some extra for the seat. I know I already paid to ride the train, I should pay more for each seat too. They're providing those seats, and they should get paid for it.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Chraley Bucket, 23 Dec 2008 @ 4:21am

    Hang on a minute...

    What sort of data are we talking about here?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    and by, 23 Dec 2008 @ 5:26am

    budgets

    The transit authority should supply data. But that comes at a cost. Is this project in their budget? Somebody needs to pay. Suppose DC Metro objects to their localized taxpayers underwriting a project that all the world can profit from? That would be reasonable. Here's my reasonable compromise: Google's request is added as a project to the next budget cycle, Google can pay 80% of the cost of the project and 50% of the on-going maintenance. At least the whole thing would come up for public review.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      duane (profile), 23 Dec 2008 @ 5:39am

      Re: budgets

      That's a reasonable suggestion on the face of it, except that in all likelihood the effort required for this is already done. The work is already done. The additional steps necessary are negligible and I'm betting they do this with someone else already, just not a private company.

      What we really don't want is Google paying for the data, because then, they, by no convoluted stretch of the imagination, own the data. The same sort of thing is talked about here all the time. Some asshat company publishes the state laws and all of a sudden bloggers can't publish those same laws because of "copyright." Doesn't make sense, but it happens. I don't particularly fancy that happening to anyone's transit schedule. I like Google, but I don't want them to own any more data than they do already, especially if they're happy just to get access to it.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Vincent Clement, 23 Dec 2008 @ 7:50am

      Re: budgets

      But that comes at a cost

      This data exists the minute a transit route is created. It is available on the DC Metro website.

      Suppose DC Metro objects to their localized taxpayers underwriting a project that all the world can profit from?

      There is no "project". All Google is asking is that data be presented in their open format. I'm fairly certain that Google would be willing to cover the costs of the conversion.

      But this isn't about costs. It's about DC Metro looking for free money from Google under the guise of loss of advertising revenue (which I understand is a paltry amount relative to the transit budget).

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    nick, 23 Dec 2008 @ 6:13am

    I get tired of complaints that public agencies are required or should give everything away for free... tax payer paid... in most cases the taxes barely cover basic operating costs and most tax payers out there aren't excited about paying more taxes (but remember, we get what we pay for). In most cases agencies do give all their data away for free, the limiting factor is that 'they' decide on a methods and formats the data is released in... in the WMATA's case this platform/format is their website (and the recent changes to the site make it a lot better, not perfect, but better). If anyone or group requests that data in another format than is being provided, that agency can choose to charge for the development and 'media' for the 'new' method/format that the data is being provided, then any subsequent user is allowed to get the data at the cost of delivery/media in the future, basically WMATA could charge Google extra during the development of needed tools to provide the data, then they could only charge extra media/delivery costs outside their standard operating costs (such as additional network fees) ... well at least that is the basic rules for most federal agencies, not necessarily state/local agencies and not including intelligence/military (I've never looked at their rules and I'm sure security issues change things)

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 23 Dec 2008 @ 7:53am

      Re:

      nick->"I get tired of complaints that public agencies are required or should give everything away for free... tax payer paid... in most cases the taxes barely cover basic operating costs"

      I get tired of paying for something multiple times.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    whitneymcn (profile), 23 Dec 2008 @ 11:06am

    Public Transportation and Data Accessibility

    It's worth noting that Bay Area Rapid Transit already offers this very data set, while New York's MTA recently unveiled a closed SMS/email alert service; the MTA's approach required building an expensive in-house email/sms infrastructure, and costs around $10k per month to operate. (Sorry, can't immediately find the link for MTA costs.) While offering APIs to serve this sort of data certainly isn't free, eliminating the costs associated with the messaging can be very significant.

    Also note that after the BART service went live, Dave Winer (among others) dedicated his own time (and money in hosting costs) to make some of the BART information available via Twitter. Additional cost to BART? Nothing.

    By making the data available--to everyone, not just to Google, of course--public transit systems make it possible for the many, many city-dwelling developers to scratch their own personal itches and build useful tools. That doesn't mean that they can't make "official" tools available, of course, just that they allow others to take on some of this work.

    Shameless Plug: this sort of thing is exactly why John Geraci (with occasional assistance from yours truly) has started the DIY City project. Developing tools around public transportation is one of the topics that's generated the most immediate interest--it looks like there's a community that wants to work with this data, it's just a question of getting the data into their hands in an efficient and cost-effective way.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Mark Regan, 23 Dec 2008 @ 1:23pm

    Let Them Keep Their Little Fiefdom

    Google is offering them a way to boost ridership at no cost to them, and offering to their customers a way to save money and time. If no one wants to take advantage of Google's kind offer, Google should simply walk away and let the pigs wallow in their mud-pit.

    It is OK for the bus company to charge advertisers for space on the side or interior of the bus, but to charge for access to the location of the buses is simply stupid.

    Google should let these idiots remain happy in their ignorance. People should simply drive to work and wait until the bus company needs another appropriation from the public trough, then REQUIRE them to make their data available to the public for FREE as a condition of receiving the money.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Eddie Babcock, 29 Dec 2008 @ 10:51am

    DC Metro has no obligation to publish their transit information in a Google-specific data format, but it would be stupid for them to not make their transit information public if there is a reasonable public benefit. Google would not be the only beneficiary of such data. Other for-profit and not-for-profit organizations could use the information to improve usage of the DC Metro system.

    Unfortunately, Google and their transit agency partners have not been good corporate citizens when it comes to making transit information public. Of the seventy transit agencies that have partnered with Google, less than twenty make their transit data independently available to all. You can see which transit agencies have done so at http://code.google.com/p/googletransitdatafeed/wiki/PublicFeeds.

    Let's give the non-public transit information providers reasons to make their information public!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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