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A commuter in Vancouver checks bus locations using a mobile app. Local developers have built transit apps using real-time data published by TransLink.

Mobile commuter apps tap into open data

Vancouver commuters braving the rain and cold are now able to find out where the next bus is with a…

By Mike Lakusiak , in Business , on November 26, 2014 Tags: , , , ,

A commuter in Vancouver checks bus locations using a mobile app. Local developers have built transit apps using real-time data published by TransLink.
Commuters in Vancouver take advantage checking bus locations on the go.

Vancouver commuters braving the rain and cold are now able to find out where the next bus is with a quick tap of their smartphone, thanks in part to developers working with open data.

Software developer Andrew Leung created Radar for Metro Vancouver Buses using GPS bus-location data provided freely by TransLink, just one of many public entities in B.C. providing open data for use by developers and for other purposes.

Leung created the app because he felt what TransLink offered wasn’t sufficient.

“I felt there needed to be an easier to use solution than what was out there.”

As much people rely on these kinds of apps for public services, they are increasingly the product of private developers dedicating their skills and time to working with public data. That raises questions about who is responsible for creating tools that turn open data into something useful to the public.

Making use of data

Leaving developers to decide what’s important to create could limit the tools the public ends up with, according to Alan Borning, a computer science professor and researcher of transit apps at the University of Washington.

“It is good to release the data, that’s going to encourage innovation. But to say that the market will deal with it all and have free-floating developers has some downsides,” he said.

Large numbers of Seattle commuters use OneBusAway, a real-time bus app that draws from similar data to what TransLink provides. Borning was involved in its development and has studied the impacts of these apps on how people use transit.

While he encouraged making open data available for the public to build on, he said that leaving apps people use every day entirely up to an unorganized community of developers could mean things like accessibility won’t be considered.

“We have made OneBusAway accessible to blind and low-vision folks and developers often won’t pay attention to that unless they themselves are blind.”

Governments everywhere have been opening up troves of finely detailed data in recent years, as part of an effort to show they are transparent. But critics have argued that making data available is only one action, since the skills required mean not everyone can make use of the data.

All of Vancouver’s 1,500 buses have complex GPS systems installed.

However, there’s a reason the government isn’t getting into the app development business and is leaving this work to external developers, said David Wrate, director of citizen engagement for the B.C. government.

“For government to get into that business is very expensive, we basically have to fire up a whole new line of business, which is not government’s role.”

Wrate said the government wants to make sure it is releasing useful data and that there are people and industry who can make good use of it. Government staff work to make sure data is in usable formats and that everyone can find it easily.

“We want to identify how we can dedicate our efforts to helping people create value from our data.”

Making transit easier

Leung wanted to make his own transit experience easier, so he used his background in software development to build Radar.

“It came out of a personal need, really.”

After sharing the app with friends, Leung eventually published his app to Apple’s App Store, where it has been downloaded between 30-40,000 times.

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TransLink’s open GPS and scheduling information system allowed Leung to create Radar. The system relies on complex GPS systems transmitting on every one of the approximately 1,500 buses in the fleet, after the agency spent the last decade ensuring every bus was equipped with tracking devices.

While transit riders can go to TransLink’s website on their smartphones, the organization doesn’t provide its own apps like it once did. Instead, the agency moved to open its data to the public.

TransLink’s director of technology application services, Kurt Pregler, said that opening up their data “was the source of a lot of internal debate,” especially because the data was perceived as valuable in an organization with some funding challenges.

“Our core business isn’t software development,” he said. “There are lots of really smart people in the public domain that can take that data, mash it up with other data, get things out that could be of additional benefit to our customers, and help drive ridership onto our system.”

Wrate said this is the sort of arrangement the province is striving for.

“It’s become more and more evident to various ministries across government and to other public bodies that if they release data it helps them achieve their mandate.”

The province met with Pregler’s team at TransLink in mid-November.

“What we heard from them is that we’re really way ahead of any public agency in terms of our use and provisioning of open data,” Pregler said.

Private developers like Leung say that was a smart move.

“Obviously, TransLink could build their own apps and keep everything closed, but more often than not, when you open it up you find that people could come up with creative ways to use the data.”

For Leung, he sees the unsolicited work done by developers as a community effort.

“In the end, it’s like having more minds thinking about the problem and coming up with a diverse set of uses for the information.”

“In the long run, I think everyone wins by having that information.”