The New York City Metropolitan Transportation Authority is not usually held up as an example of a public agency leading the way in the open data and transparency movement. It’s perennially attacked by New Yorkers and the local media as a bloated, inefficient agency that struggles just to keep the trains and buses running, let alone do anything innovative. Yet, the MTA’s recent efforts to open up its data and reach out to developers demonstrate that even the most bureaucratically and financially challenged public agencies can be leaders in embracing new media.
The first big step came earlier this year, when the agency began publishing its scheduling data on its newly revamped website. The release of the data, and its integration into Google Transit, helped to coalesce a group of developers-slash-transit geeks interested in creating services such as real-time bus and train locators and signs – technologies that have deployed in other cities either by transit agencies themselves, or increasingly by tech-savvy riders.
To harness the energy of this burgeoning community, the MTA arranged a get-together with local developers on the evening of May 5th. The event, which was hosted by Google and organized in partnership with the New York Times, NYU Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management, and Open Plans, was billed as an unconference, though for the most part, it was run like a media event – perhaps because that’s more inside the agency’s comfort zone.
Even still, it was made clear over the course the evening that the MTA is in the midst of a shift in thinking. Over the course of the evening, officials admitted that given the drawbacks of the agency’s management style, and the bureaucratic hurdles to managing technology projects in-house, its best course of action is to step aside and allow developers to build an ecosystem of competing applications and tools that can provide needed information and services to its customers.
Kicking off the event, Ernest Tollerson, the MTA’s Director for Policy and Media Relations, stated he “recognized [the MTA has] a long way to go, but we’re eager to get there.”
As part of the event, the MTA announced the release of several new data sets on its website, including turnstile and bridges and tunnel data, elevator/escalator status updates, and a host of other performance measures. In addition, the MTA as designated three staff persons to act as relationship managers with developers as they build apps using the data, and has plans for an apps contest in the fall. In response, the CIOs from the various line businesses of the MTA were given a round of applause – a symbol of sincere appreciation from a developer community starved for more data that provide real-time information.
Jay Walder, the MTA’s new CEO, seems to be behind much of the change in attitude. Coming off his experience implementing a smart card fare system for Transport of London (with a stint at McKinsey & Company in between), there are high hopes that he can reform the MTA. In the case of open data and technology, he seems to be delivering.
Citing that mobile apps could replace above ground next train signs – Walder stated his hope that the tools that might be developed using the agency’s data would help transform the city’s transit system into an even more useful resource for residents much faster and cheaper than it could do so itself (as an example of the MTA’s bureaucratic sluggishness, he admitted that it might be a decade before wireless cellular and data service would be installed in the city’s subway tunnels).
Of course, challenges still remain. Certainly, it can be hard to get government and developers working together, and some of that was on display during the event. Several conversations throughout the evening involved developers asking why technologies and data couldn’t be put in place or made available, with MTA staff responding with the political and bureaucratic hurdles that prevent things from happening. Other’s pointed out that the next step will be for the agency to get feedback from developers and customers, rather than just broadcasting its own data.
Still the agency has taken an active stance towards collaboration and cooperation with the developer community, and seems to recognize it stands to gain much more from release its data and letting things happen than trying to manage the process itself. While the MTA may still have some ways to go in other areas, it is poised to become a leader when it comes to open data.