The MTA, long known for its tight control of its transit data, hosted last night its first developers conference. The agency partnered with Google to discuss with local software developers how it can better create an environment of open information so that entrepreneurs and engineers can produce applications that will help riders with their commutes.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t attend the conference due to my law school finals schedule, but I was able to watch some of it online. One the more intriguing announcements came from MTA CEO and Chairman Jay Walder when he previewed an app contest the authority will host this fall. With new volumes of open data available to the public, the MTA is going to award prizes for the top three applications in three categories: Best Customer-Friendly Application, Best Visualization of MTA data and Best Mash-Up of MTA and Third-Party Data. The possibilities are endless, and smart phone-equipped riders will be the ones who benefit.
Yet, despite this attention to mobile application development, the MTA is still lacking underground cell service and a plan for implementation. Walder addressed that topic tonight during the Q-and-A session, and Allen Stern of CenterNetworks.com caught the clip on video. Walder spoke about his annoyance with the state of cell service underground and how he is “frustrated with pages upon pages of why it’s not going to happen this decade.”
Currently, he explained, the MTA has issued an RFP for wireless service on commuter rail lines and has signed a deal to equip Grand Central with wireless, but their plans for Transit remain in limbo. “We have a contractual arrangement to be able to get cell service into the subway as well and I hope that we’ll have that in the not too different future as well,” he said. “I think the timeframes we have established for this are simply unacceptable. I don’t believe we can explain to people why it will take until 2019 or something of that nature to be able to get cell service into the subways. And so we’re working on a range of different ways to be able to do it. But it does turn out to be one of the more problematic and vexing issues we’re facing.”
Walder has a reason to be annoyed. The MTA has been talking about underground cell service since 2005 and signed a deal (with a company many believed to be less than reliable) in September 2007. When the promises of a pilot six months after that failed to materialize, I figured the efforts to bring wireless underground were all but dead. It isn’t surprising to hear a decade-long timeline from Walder.
Underground cell service is a tricky thing though. As Stern wrote, “I can’t say I am a huge fan of cell phone service underground. It’s bad enough having to listen to music I am not interested in as if I was at a concert, now we will be subject to 200 phone calls as well.” One of my Twitter followers echoed those sentiments: “Personally I enjoy the one hour of my day that isn’t interrupted by phones, texts and emails.”
But it goes well beyond idle chit-chat and personal conversations. Having a wireless-equipped subway system will allow for greater productivity. It will accomodate those who need to work and those who can’t afford to spend 40 minutes a ride without cell service the opportunity to be plugged in. It will allow New York to better take advantage of its position in a global economy. With the good will, obviously, come the bad of conversations that are too loud or too inappropriate, but that’s the price we pay today. The subways shouldn’t be island away from the technologies of the 21st Century.
It is, then, somewhat ironic for the MTA to be so invested in open data when the phones that run these promised applications don’t work underground. Hopefully, the authority can show a commitment to this aspect of the technology as well.