Will the MTA catch the open information bug?

By · Published in 2009

MobileDevices As mobile device use permeates our society and smartphone penetration rates soar, application development has become the wave of the present. From the mundane — the weather, the nearest restaurants — to the complex — what subway car should I ride in if I want to exit efficiently at another station — mobile applications have revolutionized the way urban dwellers interact with their cities.

This weekend, The Times explored the onslaught of applications in an article about the inner workings of the Apple iPhone Application store. With low barriers to entry, low development costs and the opportunities to realize a high profit margin, programmers continue to search for ways to make life more convenient for those who carry advanced mobile devices.

Enter urban governments. For years, government operated not quite in secrecy but not with great transparency. Before the Internet Age ushered in a digital way of life, condensing and synthesizing data was simply too onerous for the work. But now that information and records are kept online, government agencies are suddenly finding themselves besieged with requests to make the information available. Some governments, in fact, are complying with the requests, writes Claire Cain Miller in today’s Times.

“It will change the way citizens and government interact, but perhaps most important, it’s going to change the way elected officials and civil servants deliver programs, services and promises,” Gavin Newsom, San Francisco’s mayor, said. “I can’t wait until it challenges and infuriates the bureaucracy.”

Miller talks more about this push for more publicly-available data:

Advocates of these open-data efforts say they can help citizens figure out what is going on in their backyards and judge how their government is performing.

But programmers have had trouble getting their hands on some data. And some activists and software developers wonder whether historically reticent governments will release data that exposes problems or only information that makes them look good.

It is too early to say whether releasing city data will actually make civil servants more accountable, but it can clearly be useful. Even data about mundane things like public transit and traffic can improve people’s lives when it is packaged and customized in an accessible way — a situation that governments themselves may not be equipped to realize.

So what does this have to do with the MTA? Well, although Newsom is waiting for this drive toward openness to infuriate the bureaucracy, we have already seen it in practice here in New York. In September, I wrote a lengthy piece about the MTA’s struggles in an age of open information. At the time, they were battling Chris Schoenfeld, creator of the Station Stops iPhone App (and an advertiser here) as well as a few other application developers over information that was not really theirs to copyright.

The MTA has long held a reluctance to release application-ready data such as schedules because the agency doesn’t want to become responsible in the eyes of the public when the applications offer up improper or wrong information. On the one hand, the MTA’s rationale seems to be somewhat sound, but the other, it is a weak defense against the opportunities afforded developers and, by extension, the public were the agency to release detailed schedules, maps, exit locations, etc. The possibilities are truly endless.

As Miller’s article notes, government agencies often do not have the capacity to offer up mobile applications as sophisticated as those developed by private programmers. It’s not a part of the part of the expertise expect of, say, transit experts, and we need not look further than the MTA’s current website for validation of that fact.

Meanwhile, under Jay Walder’s short tenure as CEO and Chairman and at the command of Albany, the authority has begun to release more materials about board meetings and the agency’s finances. The rest of their data — the currency of developers who want to improve everyday life while making a few bucks — shouldn’t be far behind.

Categories : MTA Technology

One Response to “Will the MTA catch the open information bug?”

  1. Think twice says:

    Alongside this, is there any word on the status of wiring the underground for cellphone/wireless reception?

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