Transportation Agencies: Open Your Data Now

Data Dudes

[quote_right][feature_box title=”TDM TAKEAWAY” title_color=”fff” header_color=”369″]Opening data to the public is low-hanging fruit for transportation agencies to do their role in alleviating the country’s over-stressed road and transit infrastructure.[/feature_box][/quote_right]

An important tactic for transportation agencies to balance traveler demand on roads and transit is to give people the tools and information they need to make smart choices about how they get around.

One such tool is rideshare matching – providing commuters with potential carpool or vanpool matches based on origin, destination, and time of travel. While the data exists that could make ridesharing an attractive choice for millions of Americans, conveying the information to users can be challenging because the data is highly fragmented.

Agencies must help create a culture of information sharing in which standardization and openness are top priorities.

Let me explain further.

Arlington County, Virginia has experienced the challenges of closed and non-standardized data firsthand with its Transit Tech Initiative. Since late 2013, Arlington and its partners have been working to create CarFreeAtoZ, a multimodal trip planning and comparison tool for travelers throughout the Washington D.C. region. A central objective of CarFreeAtoZ is to bring together information about all of a user’s options for getting around – walking, biking, mass transit, carpool, and vanpool – in one place, presented in a personalized, easy-to-understand way.

In the case of transit, walking, and biking, including these options in CarFreeAtoZ was a fairly straightforward process. Existing standards like OpenStreetMap allow us to easily incorporate and update multimodal street network data, while the well-established GTFS standard for transit schedule information allows us to quickly add new public transit providers. We also recently incorporated Capital Bikeshare into the app, thanks to its open data service that allows easy access to bikeshare station information.

Carpools and vanpools, as noted, are an important part of the commuting landscape, with a lot of potential. From the beginning of the CarFreeAtoZ project, the ability to embed information on personalized carpool and vanpool availability from third-party rideshare providers has been an important goal – ideally done in a way that is scalable and reproducible as new providers are incorporated.

Disjointed rules around data and lack of standardization, however, means that adding a new carpool or vanpool provider is typically a complex and labor-intensive process.

In the best cases, these partnerships result in quality information that is valuable to commuters, but still involve time-consuming coordination and custom development work for both providers and software developers like the CarFreeAtoZ team.

One example is our integration of the Commuter Connections carpool matching service, the region’s largest rideshare database. The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, the operator of the service, has been very supportive of CarFreeAtoZ, developing a custom data endpoint, or API, for our application to access. While we’re excited to be incorporating Commuter Connections data (look for it on the site within the next month), the process of adding this data could have been easier for both sides if widely adopted data standards and protocols for rideshare availability were in place.

In other cases, however, we have been unable to incorporate key rideshare partners at all because the barriers to integration are simply too high. In one case, we wanted to include data from Vanpool Alliance, the major clearinghouse for vanpool information in Northern Virginia. While the company has been very cooperative, the vanpool data is currently managed with a proprietary ridematching software platform. When we asked the vendor what would be required to access the information from our application, we learned that it would cost more than $70,000 in the first year for the API module to be enabled. What’s more, our developers would be required to sign a nondisclosure agreement just to look at the documentation.

Our frustrating experience with vanpool data and CarFreeAtoZ illustrates the challenges we face when important public-information resources become bottled up in closed, proprietary technology platforms. Much of the time – as in the case of the Vanpool Alliance – the data in question is collected and maintained as part of a public initiative and funded by public dollars. The fact that partner agencies – and the public itself – are unable to access this information without paying exorbitant fees indicates that the current system is broken, and needs to be fixed.

Thankfully, a better way is possible. Advances in open data and open transportation technology are transforming the way transportation providers engage with the traveling public – and each other. Open technology is allowing a new level of collaboration between the public sector, data providers, and software developers, enabling the sort of innovative services and tools that would not have been possible just five or 10 years ago.

A good example is the aforementioned GTFS standard, originally developed by Google to allow transit information to be added to Google Maps. The format is well documented and easy to understand, and an open, community-based process exists allowing the format to evolve over time. Thanks to this degree of openness, GTFS has been widely adopted as the de facto standard for representing fixed-route transit networks. As a result, adding a new GTFS-enabled transit provider to CarFreeAtoZ is a very straightforward process.

GTFS illustrates how a well-designed standard can help create a culture of openness and transparency around data. But ultimately, the most important ingredient is a shift in attitude about the nature and role of transportation information in the public sector.

Transportation data should not be viewed as a particular agency or company’s intellectual property, but rather as public resource whose effectiveness is directly tied to how readily available and usable it is.

When all information is open and available, including that of ridesharing availability, the public will have an improved menu of choices that will help take great stress off our nation’s frequently overused (and just as often underused) transportation infrastructure.

Photo by M.V. Jantzen

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Steve Yaffe

As Mr. Coogan mentioned at the ATTRI conference, intercity transit providers should be providing GTFS data as well (Greyhound, Trailways, Peter Pan, etc.).

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