Talking transit tech @ the MTAdev conf

Next Wednesday, I’ll be on a panel at the MTA Developers Unconference.  I’m very much looking forward to the event, because among other things, one of my fellow panelists will be the new MTA Chief, Jay Walder.  Here, I’ll give an overview of what I’m hoping to discuss on the panel; any feedback would  be greatly appreciated.

Before I get to that, though, I should note that it’s been an interesting journey working with MTA on its open data and developer relations policies over the past year.  In a nutshell, it’s gone from a highly contentious situation, to an atmosphere of open collaboration.

Almost exactly one year ago, here at OpenPlans we were beginning to experiment with the problem of tracking buses through the city.  That led us to dip our toes in the world of transit data — since you need to know the routes and schedules to do tracking and predicting — and introduced us to some of the challenges in getting accurate and up-to-date NYC bus schedule data.  Over the next 9 months, we engaged with the NYC transit developer community and the MTA to help work through the issues standing in the way of open MTA data.  We were very pleased when they announced in January that they’d be launching a developer outreach and open data program.

We believe that most of the credit for making this dramatic change happen goes to Chairman Walder and his conviction that open data would lead to innovation and ultimately better service for riders.  In his words at the time of the MTA dev center launch: “We need to get out of our own way and instead get out in front of the data sharing revolution” (via Second Avenue Sagas).

But I’d also like to personally thank Nick Bergson-Shilcock, David Turner, and the rest of the transit team here at OpenPlans for their hard and important work in helping to organize the NYC transit developer community, and in helping to identify and work through the sticking points regarding open data policy with the MTA.  Back in August 2009, I got an email from Nick to the effect of “This is going to be really big, and we need to step up and get involved.”  That prompted us to start the NY Transit Data Meetup, and develop a more serious and structured conversation about open data with the MTA and the developer community.  Thanks Nick; you were right (as usual), and I’m really happy that I listened to you (as usual).

Fast forward to today.  MTA has open data, a growing developer community, and is iterating.  From our perspective, they seem to be heading in the right direction.  So, that begs the question, what should they focus on next?  Here are a few things that I’ll be interested in hearing about & talking about on Wednesday:

  • Within MTA, which datasets would be the next easiest to expose? Of those, which would be the most interesting to developers?
  • What can we do to increase data sharing among other regional transit agencies? Last I checked, NJ Transit was the largest agency without open data according to City-Go-Round.
  • Let’s think beyond just transit data to transportation data. When it comes to planning trips, modes should be abstracted out of search.  What other datasets (outside of the ones in the MTA’s control) would be required to make some really interesting things possible?  (I’m thinking DOT for traffic, TLC for taxi data, paratransit, etc.)
  • Real-time. MTA has been piloting real-time bus location data on 34th street.  Would love to see the L train and 6 train in future pilots.
  • (Imaginary readers out there…) If you could ask Chairman Walder one question, what would it be?

That’s it.  Have a great weekend, and here’s to smart transportation and open, interoperable cities…

// Heart shaped subway map by ZEROPERZERO

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