Demonstrating “DC Metro and Bus” to a roomful of developers this week, Ian Dixon admitted his app isn’t perfect. The wait times fed to it aren’t always accurate, and customers aren’t shy about letting him know. It’s not his fault, he says. His app, the region’s most popular dedicated to transit, is only as good as the information in Metro gives it.
Nonetheless, “I get a lot of…what can only be described as hate mail,” Dixon said.
In the corner of the room was Metro strategic planning adviser Michael Eichler, who was quick with a self-deprecating quip.
“Now you know what it feels like.”
A packed Metro auditorium erupted in laughter.
It was an amiable gathering of data wonks and their Metro counterparts, a sort of peace offering after months of testy back and forth and claims that the transit agency has not been responsive to requests from engineers and developers. The gathering was the fourth Metro Hack Night — a show and tell for transportation “techies” that allows them to demonstrate their new programs — but it was the first held on Metro’s turf. It was bolstered by exciting news from the transit agency’s ranks.
Metro this week promised big changes in the way it handles its open data. The announcement came after a months-long push by developers such as James Pizzurro to address holes in its data, and a Washington Post article that highlighted a breakdown in communication between the agency and the developer community.
Software developers have criticized the agency for failing to address gaps in its data interface that feed inaccurate information to their apps: wait times, train locations, how long delays will last. Now, Metro says, it will provide third-party developers a new feed that will show the real-time locations of trains across all 117 miles of the system. The agency expects the data stream to be ready by this summer.
Moreover, Metro says it will host a series of “data days” to ascertain the needs of developers, where developers will be able to showcase apps and data visualizations and engage in discussions about working out the kinks. After all, the agency says, the developers can produce web and smartphone apps at a pace much faster than government — often, for free.
“Metro is committed to giving customers the best tools possible to plan their travel, and I want to engage proactively with the developer community to help us achieve that goal,” General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld said in a statement.
Metro says the push for better data came internally from its planning department, and from top officials such as Wiedefeld and Metro board Chairman Jack Evans, who wondered why the agency wasn’t better capitalizing on the abilities of developers.
The agency’s spokesman Dan Stessel said security concerns that had once prevented the issuance of unique train locations were re-evaluated and mitigated.
“Everyone was comfortable” releasing the data, he said. “In the post-9/11 world, there were restrictions put in place not just by us, but by transit agencies all over the country. Over time, people re-evaluate risk.”
Attendees at Tuesday’s event were enthusiastic about Metro’s willingness to work with them. The audience applauded when the agency’s new release was projected on a screen, outlining its plans for new real-time location data and events geared toward engaging the developer community.
“We want transportation companies to focus on their core business,” said Michael Schade, of Mobility Lab, one of the event’s hosts, who organized the event through his “Transportation Techies” meetup.com group, which has about 1,400 members. “We don’t want [the Washington Metropolitan Area Transportation Authority] to worry about having to become an app developer on the side. WMATA is doing exactly the right thing.”
“It’s good to see,” said James Pizzurro, who had pushed for more accurate information on train locations for his MetroHero app. “They’re trying to distinguish train positions from predictions. There’s still some issues on the table that maybe should be addressed before the summer.”
At Tuesday night’s event, Metro planning director Shyam Kannan marveled at the turnout and the energy from an auditorium filled with dozens of developers.
“Look at this,”Kannan said, eyes aglow. He chalked up the enthusiasm about transit-related apps to the frustration of rush-hour commutes.
“People’s commutes are very personal,” he said. “Time is the only thing we can’t make any more” of.
Mary Kaye Vavasour, Metro’s manager for web applications, admitted the agency has been “heads down” about its data over the past few years, even as requests for its open data interface surged over the past two years. The agency said its goals now are to fix what’s broken and proactively engage with developers. Metro also is looking at giving developers a primary point of contact from its program interface team.
After her presentation came the show-and-tell portion of night. James Ferrara demonstrated “Metro Failure Forecast”, which uses weather and service data to predict the chances and potential duration of a Metro delay on a given day.
“What if I knew ahead of time how much my commute would suck?” he asked.
Rebecca Mills showed off “WhatsaMATA” (sounds like what’s the matter?), which would let riders submit a quick description of problems they’re experiencing at different points along the system.
And then there was Andrew Yue’s “WMATA Watcher”, which uses @metrorailinfo Tweets to predict delays and keep track of when service disruptions go unreported by Metro.
Chris Barnes, a member of the Riders’ Advisory Council who had advocated on developers’ behalf, said he hopes the assortment of apps, geared toward riders of every ilk, can engage the larger community.
“There’s some things you can fix easily and some things you can’t fix easily. This is something Metro can hopefully hit out of the park,” said Barnes, who tweets under the handle of @FixWMATA.
Kannan, the agency’s planning director, said there is work yet to be done. The announcement of new real-time data, partially ushered in by his office, was the first step.
“We’re very proud today,” he said. “But it’s only the beginning.”