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With new maps and apps, the case for open transit gets stronger

OpenTripPlanner logoEarlier this year, the news broke that Apple would be dropping default support for transit in iOS 6. For people (like me) who use the iPhone to check transit routes and times when they travel, that would mean losing a key feature. It also has the potential to decrease the demand for open transit data from cities, which has open government advocates like Clay Johnson concerned about public transportation and iOS 6.

This summer, New York City-based non-profit Open Plans launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund a new iPhone transit app to fill in the gap.

“From the public perspective, this campaign is about putting an important feature back on the iPhone,” wrote Kevin Webb, a principal at Open Plans, via email. “But for those of us in the open government community, this is about demonstrating why open data matters. There’s no reason why important civic infrastructure should get bound up in a fight between Apple and Google. And in communities with public GTFS, it won’t.”

Open Plans already had a head start in creating a patch for the problem: they’ve been working with transit agencies over the past few years to build OpenTripPlanner, an open source application that uses open transit data to help citizens make transit decisions.

“We were already working on the back-end to support this application but decided to pursue the app development when we heard about Apple’s plans with iOS,” explained Webb. “We were surprised by the public response around this issue (the tens of thousands who joined Walkscore’s petition and wanted to offer a constructive response).”

Crowdfunding digital city infrastructure?

That’s where Kickstarter and crowdfunding come into the picture. The Kickstarter campaign would help Open Plans make OpenTripPlanner a native iPhone app, followed by Android and HTML5 apps down the road. Open Plans’ developers have decided that given mobile browser limitations in iOS, particularly the speed of JavaScript apps, an HTML5 app isn’t a replacement for a native app.

Kickstarter has emerged as a platform for more than backing ideas for cool iPod watches or services. Increasingly, it’s looking like Kickstarter could be a new way for communities to collectively fund the creation of civic apps or services for their towns that government isn’t agile enough to deliver for them. While that’s sure to make some people in traditional positions of power uneasy, it also might be a way to do an end-around traditional procurement processes — contingent upon cities acting as platforms for civic startups to build upon.

“We get foundation and agency-based contract support for our work already,” wrote Webb. “However, we’ve discovered that foundations aren’t interested in these kinds of rider-facing tools, and most agencies don’t have the discretion or the budget to support the development of something universal. As a result, these kinds of projects require speculative investment. One of the awesome things about open data is that it lets folks respond directly and constructively by building something to solve a need, rather than waiting on others to fix it for them.

“Given our experience with transit and open data, we knew that this was a solvable problem; it just required someone to step up to the challenge. We were well positioned to take on that role. However, as a non-profit, we don’t have unlimited resources, so we’d ask for help. Kickstarter seems like the right fit, given the widespread public interest in the problem, and an interesting way to get the message out about our perspective. Not only do we get to raise a little money, but we’re also sharing the story about why open data and open source matter for public infrastructure with a new audience.”

Civic code in active re-use

Webb, who has previously staked out a position that iOS 6 will promote innovation in public transit, says that OpenTripPlanner is already a thriving open source project, with a recent open transit launch in New Orleans, a refresh in Portland and other betas soon to come.

In a welcome development for DC cyclists (including this writer), a version of OpenTripPlanner went live recently at BikePlanner.org. The web app, which notably uses OpenStreetMap as a base layer, lets users either plot a course for their own bike or tap into the Capital Bikeshare network in DC. BikePlanner is a responsive HTML5 app, which means that it looks good and works well on a laptop, iPad, iPhone or Android device.

Focusing on just open transit apps, however, would be to miss the larger picture of new opportunities to build improvements to digital city infrastructure.

There’s a lot more at stake than just rider-facing tools, in Webb’s view — from urban accessibility to extending the GTFS data ecosystem.

“There’s a real need to build a national (and eventually international) transit data infrastructure,” said Webb. “Right now, the USDOT has completely fallen down on the job. The GTFS support we see today is entirely organic, and there’s no clear guidance anywhere about making data public or even creating GTFS in the first place. That means building universal apps takes a lot of effort just wrangling data.”

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