New York Public Transit Data Summit. With Beer.

Access to transportation schedules has been a hot topic lately. Most recently, iPhone developer Chris Schoenfeld has  come in conflict with the MTA over schedule data. Chris wrote an app that uses schedules for Metro-North, and the MTA wants him to pay royalties for his use of the data from both past and future sales of his application. Chris has refused, noting that data under US law is not copyrightable and thus he is legally free to use and distribute it as he sees fit.

A couple of us at TOPP Labs have also run into issues trying to get MTA schedule data. We’re always experimenting with transit-related applications (from bus trackers to trip planners) and public data is integral to many of them. This past March, we requested MTA bus schedule data via a FOIL request. Within a month, the MTA had responded by sending us a CD containing bus route and schedule information for all the New York City Transit bus lines.  This data was in an undocumented format, and we set out reverse engineering it with the goal of writing a parser to generate GTFS data (we’ve got the parser working and released it as free software and you can download the GTFS).

Not long into the process, sections of Broadway were closed down for vehicle traffic. As a result, several bus routes were changed, making some of the data the MTA had sent us obsolete.

We wrote to the MTA to try to figure out how best to keep our data up to date. They told us that we must file a FOIL request every month or two and that there was no way to know when the schedules would be updated. But having one or two month old data isn’t of much value to us; we tried sending FOIL requests more frequently but quickly found that this angered the MTA, since their process for fielding a FOIL request is somewhat laborious. Since we’re not interested in making the MTA’s life harder, we stopped and started pursuing other avenues for getting up to date data.

Over the past months we’ve gone back and forth with the MTA several times, trying to find a way to get up to date data. So far, we haven’t found anything mutually satisfactory. But we’re still hopeful that we can find a good solution.

Everyone involved wants the same things. We all want better public transit. We all benefit when reliable data is easy to come by. The MTA benefits because independent developers write applications that make the infrastructure the MTA maintains more valuable for its riders. And this means the MTA doesn’t need to pay to develop apps for the iPhone, Android, Pre, Blackberry, and whatever comes next. Riders benefit because they can access schedules in the way that’s easiest and most convenient for them.

New York has a vast transportation network with complicated schedule data, and it’s inevitable for some errors to slip by. We’ve noticed a few oversights in the data we’ve received (e.g, the S55 shape data is out of date, the schedule data doesn’t distinguish between the M14A and M14D) and would love to help fix them. The net is full of examples of crowdsourcing for correcting errors (“given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow”), but there’s not currently a process in place for citizens to submit corrections.

The MTA is understandably concerned about inaccurate or out of date data giving them a bad name. They don’t want riders getting bad data and then blaming them for it, and neither do we. And the MTA doesn’t want to spend all their time responding to FOIL requests. It’s in nobody’s interest to make the MTA’s already tough job harder; as taxpayers, we want to help the MTA be as efficient as possible. As New Yorkers, we want the city to stay on the cutting edge of public transportation.

We think these problems are solvable. That’s why we propose a meeting of the minds. We think progress is made when people come together, honestly discuss their goals, and work cooperatively to reach mutually beneficial solutions.

And that’s why we’re hosting a New York Transporation Data Summit. With beer. While the event will be open to the public, we’ve specifically reached out to MTA employees, open government advocates, application developers, and transit enthusiasts.

Here’s the scoop:

WHERE: 148 Lafayette St, NY, New York, 12th floor (map)
WHEN: Tuesday, August 25 at 6pm
WHAT: Meetup to discuss how the MTA and the developer community can best collaborate.

Please RSVP here.

Please come join us for pizza, beer, and a friendly discussion. There’s also a stunning view of the city we all love.

(This post was written by David Turner and Nicholas Bergson-Shilcock)