Transit Authority Rejects Openness, Thumbs Nose at Web

Everyday, I travel the Washington Metro Area Transit Authority – usually on the DC area trains, but occasionally on local buses and commuter rails as well. Increasingly, I am frustrated by the ability of the transit system to handle schedules, broken escalators, delays and weather conditions and a myriad of other challenges that should be met handsomely by the mass transit system of the capital city of the United States.

At one time, the Washington Metro system was considered one of the finest in the country but as the region has exploded and ridership increases, the antiquated “single track” systems that does not allow for such things as “Express Trains” (as they have in NYC), the ubiquitous broken escalators (I’m convinced that at any given time, 33% of Metro escalators are out of service) and the pitiful hours of operation (that assumes that the only time people are in the city are work hours) has turned the system into a laughable system. An overqualified system, with underqualified management.

But my unhappiness with the Metro system is not the point of this post, except to highlight the inability of a multi-jurisdictional system to manage itself appropriately. The real segue here is to point to the mismanagement of the WMATA’s technical prowess.

Going Underground
Image by Son of Groucho via Flickr

According to Greater Greater Washington, the WMATA has terminated conversations with Google over a refusal by the internet search giant to pay for data having to do with transit schedules for it’s Google Transit service. Google Transit provides a way for users to map their routes from point A to point B using a combination of driving, mass transit and walking directions.

The premise for the argument is that WMATA is attempting to monetize their own website and data and fears that Google will undermine its own ability to monetize.

As DCist points out, even though WMATA has a new user interface for their site, it performs slowly and schedule information is still tucked away in PDFs.

Time and again, it has been proven that the world operates in an open environment on the web. Open access encourages innovation. It also floats talent to the top. Just ask the Summize guys who, after only a few months of existence as a company operating on the open Twitter API, were acquired by Twitter simply due to their massive talent. Ask the SocialThing guys who, although the API-mashup service itself sucked, were acquired by AOL for the talent-base.

Peter Corbett, of iStrategyLabs who has consulted for the Office of the Chief Technology Office for the District, says that what people don’t realize is that there is realtime data not being exposed anywhere including realtime GPS data for every bus in the city. This data is crucial for real time mapping, something that is not currently done anywhere.

There also seems to be a significant customer outcry against this lack of openness and transparency and one wonders what a massive sit-in protest that ground the Metro Center train station to a halt during the Inauguration would do. Technosailor.com would happily sponsor such an event.

Aaron Brazell

Aaron Brazell is a Baltimore, MD-based WordPress developer, a co-founder at WP Engine, WordPress core contributor and author. He wrote the book WordPress Bible and has been publishing on the web since 2000. You can follow him on Twitter, on his personal blog and view his photography at The Aperture Filter.

5 thoughts on “Transit Authority Rejects Openness, Thumbs Nose at Web

  1. I agree with you that it sounds like the DC metro system is being mismanaged. Obviously, lots of people use Google Maps to get around. Trying to make money off Google (or other) ads (at the expense of licensing the data to Google) or worse trying to sell basic schedule data to customers just makes it harder for tourists (& locals) to be customers of your subway!

  2. Even the Maryland MTA uses Google Maps for scheduling, although the performance could be a little better….(saved searches, anyone?) I’m really surprised that the DC Metro system still shuts down so early — nice way to make sure you have an exodus of drunk people on the highways after the bars close.

  3. It’s a terrible shame that some parts of government still operate and act in this way. The single most important project that government IT departments should be focusing (outside of normal operations) is opening up their data so that the developer community can innovate. The benefits to the public could be immense if they did and the benefits to government internally could be even bigger. Shame on WMATA. I have read that the blame on not opening up is on a lack of funding. This is no excuse. I am sure that cost reductions in other areas could easily be found if the desire was there. My fear is that the desire is not there.

  4. All I know about the DC metro system, I learned in the Capital Wasteland… (now the London Underground, that I do happen to know a fair bit about).

  5. I read that story in DCist in disbelief. WMATA should pay Google to help them get a hold of and organize all of the untapped information instead of the other way around. Working with Google might initially increase costs but they will realize a cost savings in no longer have to support the antiquated system they are currently running. Then they could concentrate on their core mission and dare I say, build a system based on how people want to use Metro instead of just bringing people in from the suburbs to work downtown which was the initial intention in the 60s.

    BTW, I don’t think you need to sponsor the sit in protest at Metro Center. That station as well as the entire system is already going to be mobbed during Inauguration week.

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