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Metro GM on open data: Nothing so secretive about Metro ‘that we can’t share’

Riders are seen on a Metro train as it stops at the Farragut North Metro station in January. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld said Thursday that the agency needs to improve its relationship with third-party app developers, following a Washington Post story that highlighted problems in communication between the agency and software engineers.

D.C. Council member Jack Evans raised the issue at a hearing of the Council’s Committee on Finance and Revenue, where Wiedefeld appeared alongside Metro Transit Police Chief Ron Pavlik Jr. to discuss  safety, operations and finances of the system. Evans, who was recently named Metro board chairman, heads the Council’s committee.

How developers are trying to keep Metro honest using its own data

At Thursday’s hearing, Evans told Wiedefeld he was discouraged to learn that data gaps discovered  by app developers and transit advocates had gone unaddressed by Metro for months.

Software developer James Pizzurro, one of the creators of MetroHero, an app that aims to create a real-time map of Metro trains, said the data fed to his app is at times unreliable and riddled with holes. What’s more, he says Metro has been unresponsive to requests to fix it.

Pizzurro says the app could help improve riders’ trust in Metro and hold the agency accountable by providing accurate wait times for trains and fostering a better understanding of the system’s complexity.

“They gave the impression that they had this great idea and they talked to Metro and Metro’s like ‘we’re not interested,'” Evans said, before asking Wiedefeld, “Paul, what happened, why does Metro do that? You know, why do they do that?”

Wiedefeld said Metro needs to be more proactive in reaching out to engineers and developers who might be creating cutting-edge technology faster than Metro could possibly do. Still, their apps are only as reliable as the data Metro provides them.

“The reality is for us to do particularly some of these state-of-the-art initiatives — for us to get there with our own staff and resources, [we’ll] be too late to the game,” Wiedefeld told the Council panel. “We need to reach out to the players in that community and welcome them in to help us get this out there.”

Said Wiedefeld, “We need to be much more open about what we can provide. There’s nothing that secretive about what we do that we can’t share.”

Pizzurro said he was encouraged by Wiedefeld and Evans’ comments, but wants to see concrete changes. He plans to bring up the issue with Metro administrators at a Feb. 23 “Hack Night.” At the event, Metro strategic planning adviser Michael Eichler will join chief executive Carey Anne Nadeau of the data consulting firm Open Data Nation to discuss the future of Metro’s open data interface.

“I mean, it’s definitely encouraging to hear the both of them talk like that. I noticed that Wiedefeld stopped himself short of describing exactly what he planned to do,” Pizzurro said. “I’m hoping this isn’t the last we hear of that conversation between the two of them publicly.”