For the last few months, the MTA and Chris Schoenfeld, a Second Ave. Sagas advertiser and the programmer behind the Station Stops blog and Metro-North scheduling iPhone application, have been engaged in a legal battle over data. The MTA has at times erroneously claimed copyright in its scheduling data and has generally made life tough for Schoenfeld. While you can read all about this conflict in my extensive post on the MTA’s struggles in an age of open information, the transit agency is not certain how it wants to proceed in a digital era.
The MTA is, of course, not alone in this sense. Public authority and governmental agencies are among the last to adopt technological innovation. While data in our wired world of 2009 wants to be freely available for people with the time and knowledge to create useful applications with it, government entities are hesitant to cede control of its information to those without ready access to it. Although programmers attach their names to these applications and draw revenue, when scheduling data is incorrect, the MTA would bear the brunt of the criticism. Or so the argument goes.
After this legal fight, though, the MTA claims it is turning a corner with its information. The agency has dropped its claims against Schoenfeld and a similar Long Island Rail Road application, and although Station Stops is still not available on the iPhone App Store, the MTA is changing its approach to data and developers, according to an article in today’s Times. Michael Grynbaum reports on this sea change at MTA headquarters:
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority said that it needed to ensure that information provided to the public was accurate, and that it was concerned about protecting its copyrighted logos, maps and other trademarks. A spokesman said that a licensing program offered an additional layer of scrutiny and protected the public’s interest in information that is produced with taxpayer dollars.
Christopher P. Boylan, the director of corporate and community affairs for the authority, said the agency was moving toward a more open stance with its data. Right now, for instance, many agencies offer their raw data on a shared Web site; New York’s agency makes it available only on a compact disc. Mr. Boylan said that and other policies may change soon.
“All of a sudden the word ‘apps’ has become part of the lingo,” he said. “We probably wouldn’t be having this conversation six months ago, exactly like this.”
Authority officials readily admit that their Web operations could use sprucing up. “We don’t have a staff that sits around thinking about apps,” Mr. Boylan said.
Based on the way the MTA’s website looks and navigates, I don’t think they have a staff sitting around thinking about something as basic as a transit web portal, let alone mobile phone applications. The MTA should not be afraid admit this institutional shortcoming and by opening up its data, outsource a potential solution to its digital problem.
It’s hard to tell based on Grynbaum’s article just what approach the MTA will be trying. The agency will still fiercely protect its trademarks and will ask for royalty fees for the use of copyrighted symbols — subway bullets and maps. As I explored a few weeks ago, the agency has no legal grounds for a copyright claim to its schedule data though.
Politicians throughout the country have pressured government agencies to open its scheduling data to a hungry public, and the MTA is no exception. Schoenfeld called upon some politicians to side with him in his David-vs.-Goliath fight, and the MTA may be ready to respond. For now, this is a provisional victory for transit advocates and riders. I won’t celebrate until we actually see the data out there for the world’s enjoyment. Progress, it seems, will be incremental.