John O'Leary is a former GOVERNING contributor. He is co-author of "If We Can Put a Man on the Moon: Getting Big Things Done in Government."E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
The Boston Globe reports that bus riders in Beantown can now get real-time information about where the bus is on their mobile phone. Best of all? The applications weren't expensive, custom made or paid for with taxpayer dollars. They were basically free.
The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) didn't do any of the heavy lifting. All they did was unleash the data -- and let enterprising technologists do the rest. Notes the MBTA website: "Since releasing real-time and schedule data about the MBTA, developers have been busy building innovative applications that make riding the T easier. In addition to MBTA.com, these applications available for web, cell phone and Smartphone give you the info you need to get around the system."
Once data was released, the apps were developed in less than a month. The rapidity with which developers created apps once the data was available seemed to surprise MBTA officials. This "wiki" approach of allowing outsiders to work out solutions to public problems is a growing trend in better, faster, cheaper government.
The MBTA hosts on its website a page that collects a variety of "where's the bus?" applications for a variety of platforms. The page offers an impressive array of travel tools for Android, text or web. The real-time bus location is generated by GPS transponders -- the MBTA merely makes them available in a format developers can use. The result is a slew of homemade apps that make the riding experience a little less frustrating.
The MBTA is hardly the first to go this route. A visit to Washington, D.C.'s NextBus will show how prevalent this information is becoming. If you open up the data, new forms of information sharing will emerge.
If you visit the MBTA's app showcase page, you'll be struck at the variety of tools offered for every imaginable device. It has only been a matter of weeks that this data has been available, but dozens of developers have been hard at work putting useful information into the hands of transit riders. It is doubtful that the MBTA would have had the financial or technical resources to create these apps.
Train data at the MBTA is proving a little more difficult, since it entails translating underground track sensor information into usable form, but most train data is available as well.
In fact, digital maps showing where trains are have been installed at two stations, but due to budget concerns it may take years to make them available at all stations. For train stations that are underground, this means no smartphone reception -- and no clue about when the next train will arrive.
It just goes to show that ff you open up the data, new forms of information sharing will emerge. Judging by reader comments, the handheld apps are greatly appreciated, but the MBTA still has a bigger problem: No one has yet to figure out how to get the trains to run on time.