The MTA this afternoon launched its redesigned website, and while this technological innovation drew headlines earlier today, the real story is one of data. With the new site, the MTA made its scheduling data free to the public. Developers and riders alike now have nearly instant access to the agency’s schedules, and the number of mobile applications and novel online uses of this data should expand exponentially now.
“One of my first priorities when I came back to the MTA was to improve the way we communicate with our customers,” MTA CEO and Chairman Jay Walder said. “We have completely overhauled the MTA’s outdated website format by putting the customer first with clear, easy-to-find information to help navigate our transit system.”
For most users, the obvious changes are user-friendly, visual and for the better. Front and center is a real-time service status information box with updates on service across the subways, buses, commuter rails and bridges and tunnels operating by the MTA. These updates will tell us if the lines are operating with “Good Service” and any unexpected “Delays,” “Planned Work,” or “Service Changes” will link users to the service advisory.
The home page is, while still a little cluttered, simply easier to navigate. The Plan & Ride box is in the upper left corner with options to use the MTA’s own TripPlanner as well. The maps are easy to find, and the links on the left side have been selected to provide those who surf with the proper guidelines. The Accountability and Transparency section has been overhauled too, and it will grow tougher for politicians to claim that the MTA is not providing information to the outside world. The MTA too has fully embraced social media and social networking.
The Straphangers Campaign praised the new site for just these innovations. “Its revamped website makes it easier for riders to plan their trips and avoid delays, for the public to keep track of what the agency is doing and for those working to develop new computer applications to make life easier for riders,” Gene Russianoff said in a statement.
Behind the scenes, though, much of the website content remains the same. It’s easier to find, for example, the Second Ave. Subway project page, but the presentations, updates and documents are still thrown together in a somewhat organized list. In a way, it reminds me of that 2008-era line about putting lipstick on a pig. Still, we shouldn’t scoff at the organization and streamlined navigation options on view in the menu bar. The new site adds structure where before there was little.
The real story though is how the MTA, with one flip of the switch, has gone from being the largest transit agency in the nation with no open data to being the largest in the nation providing free access to scheduling data. “While the new Resource Center will launch with existing service and schedule data, the intent over the longer term is to identify and make available other data about the MTA system and its operation,” the agency said in a press release. “That should lead to new and exciting apps that will provide improved information for customers.”
Walder echoed these sentiments. “We need to get out of our own way and instead get out in front of the data sharing revolution,” said Walder. “By making access to our data directly from our website, we are encouraging the developer community to do the work we can’t to create apps that benefit our customers at no cost to the MTA.”
To accomplish this release of data, the MTA and Google worked together to redefine Google’s Transit sharing parameters. The data has been released in the new General Transit Feed Specification format and should provide developers with their own playground for transit data. For more on this story, check out coverage The Civic Hacker. They run down the good of it, the areas the need work and the next steps.
“Google applauds the MTA’s efforts to open up their route and schedule data to all app developers,” Joe Hughes, lead developer of GTFS at Google, said. “Transit agencies around the world are finding that open GTFS data means more and better apps for transit riders, at no additional cost to the agency.”
For an agency long used to being the butt of punchlines concerning transit data, this new website is a true step in the right direction. As customers get used to the changes, the MTA’s developers will have to respond to feedback and criticism. Only then will we know for sure if the agency has embraced technological innovation, but today’s reveal was a good step in the right direction.