MTA Continues to Open Its Doors

A screenshot from NYC Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications' (DoITT) NYCityMap showing subway entrances/exits and their intersections (green globe), subway station, and the lines serving that station.

A screenshot from NYC Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications' (DoITT) NYCityMap showing subway entrances/exits and their intersections (green globe), subway station, and the lines serving that station.

The MTA recently released a new dataset with exact latitude and longitude coordinates of station entrances and exits. This was a highly requested dataset for many transit developers and showcases the lastest development in the MTA’s transition from a data licensing model toward community collaboration in pursuit of more innovative applications. This shift has not only inspired programmers to develop much-needed applications that help citizens navigate the subway system, but is also a great example of confidence in the community’s ability to provide low cost innovations while many public transit agencies are facing fiscal challenges.

Last year, the MTA was exploring an exclusive data sharing contract with Google in order to better manage the usage and distribution of MTA transit data. At the same time, the delivery of transit data to private developers (often smaller and more local to NYC) was viewed as cumbersome because the data was only provided in CD-ROM format. This made it challenging to retrieve and keep the data updated in an efficient way. Seeing that other cities were finding some cost-savings by making data public, the MTA began to accommodate an emerging open data movement and leverage the expertise of the developer community.

Under the new MTA leadership of Chairman Jay Walder, the MTA has unveiled more than 50 datasets and held a developer  unconference. This event included software developers, good government advocates, and policymakers in order to facilitate an open exchange between the MTA and the developer community. At the unconference, Walder spoke of how access to information and technology will usher in a new era of mass transit for New Yorkers. Analogous to the “See Something, Say Something” announcements, Walder sought help from developers and promised to work with the community to release more data.

In the week before June 28 when new service modifications were implemented, the MTA released updated timetables and other schedule-related materials to developers to ensure applications would run smoothly through the change, and on July 2nd the oft-requested (and contentious) latitude and longitude coordinates for all individual subway station entrances and exits was released.

Here’s a look at what it contains:

  • Longitude (to the sixth decimal place)
  • Latitude (to the sixth decimal place)
  • Division (BMT, IND, IRT)
  • Line (by branches)
  • Station name
  • Entrance Type (Stair, Easement, Elevator)
  • Route (letters and numbers)
  • ADA (Yes/No)
  • Low Turnstiles
  • Hi Turnstiles
  • Cross Sections relative to the Street Level (N/S, E/W)

The release of this data had apparently been contested for some time because of perceived security risks. The MTA has declined comment, but it is believed that the NYPD had seen the potential for malicious use of the data. What had confused many about this position was that the data was already displayed in many forms such as on NYCityMap, but was simply not available in raw digital form. Undercover emergency exits and tunnel evacuation locations remain withheld for safety reasons, but the main entrances and exits to the street level and closest ADA drop-off points are now available for developers to integrate into their applications and help riders better navigate the 660 miles of subway lines.

The benefits outweigh the overall concerns about this data. After all, that’s the purpose of the open data movement—releasing data that will enhance citizen use of public services but not put the public at risk. Previously, transit applications and mapping systems like Google Maps could only display the centerpoint of a station and direct riders to the general vicinity, but now applications can provide directions based on the specific entrances and exits of stations. With this additional dataset, we can plan our trips more accurately and even save the frustration of getting off the wrong car or at the wrong exit. Occasionally, this would also be helpful in getting to transfer points faster, especially buses. Such a dataset can also bring public input to topics such as improving station exits or re-evaluations of traffic flow (possibly combined with the turnstile data). Applications such as Exit Strategy and WayFinder have already exceeded expectations but could now do even more by providing true door to door directions. Ultimately, the best use of this data is likely to be an unexpected one, something that combines this information with the growing ecosystem of new data and applications.

At a recent Gov2.0 event Sarah Kaufman, a Projects Coordinator for MTA New York City Transit noted that the MTA will soon release a “wish list” of applications they hope the developer community to build with all the data they have released. Sarah provided a glimpse at this wishlist by emphasizing the need for better visualizations.

MTA data, such as exits and entrances, holds vast potential for new and creative mobile-based transit solutions. We look forward to the ongoing improvement of New York’s transit experience through collaboration with developers, commuters and the MTA.

Sam Wong is a summer intern at OpenPlans, researching best practices in government open source and open data as part of our OpenMuni.org initiative. Sam previously served as Legislative Aide on Technology in Government for the New York City Council.