MassDOT moves forward with open data

Across the country, from New York and San Francisco, to Chicago, Denver and Los Angeles, transportation departments are levering open-source technology and development to help deliver a smoother ride. By making data available to developers, these cities are demonstrating how issues like prolonged potholes, construction delays and missing the last bus can be a worry of the past. And now, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, MassDOT, is looking to do the same.

Last week, representatives from MassDOT showed how they are leveraging their static data to help deliver better services for MassDOT users. In a webinar hosted by O’Reilly Media, Chris Dempsey and Joshua Robin, of the Massachusetts Executive Office of Transportation, explained how their agency wanted to duplicate what other city and state transportation departments were doing around the country.

“We were inspired by BART’s [San Francisco’s Bay Area Regional Transit] open format schedules and real-time information,” Mr. Robin, manager of performance reporting at the transportation office, said. He also mentioned Portland’s transit system, TriMet, Denver’s RTD and D.C.’s Metro as examples of what could be done in the Commonwealth. “They weren’t charging for their data – it was different form a traditional model. And we saw that was spurring a whole lot of innovation.”

In order to jump-start the process, Mr. Robin and Mr. Dempsey said they engaged the local development community and began scheduling monthly meetings. They also utilized Google Groups and Twitter to keep their developers informed and to answer questions. The EOT Developers page, created a place for MassDOT to post and prospective developers to download the data streams used to make applications so users can locate the closest MBTA subway or tell when next bus will arrive.

“By working with local developers, we’ve got high quality apps and haven’t had to spend much,” Mr. Robin said. And there’s the rub. MassDOT has simply made some of their data open for others to combine and mold into useful applications. By using GTSF, Google Transit Schedule Files, in conjunction with other MassDOT information, developers have made applications to show things like restaurants, hospitals, landmarks and schools.

“The information is constantly updated at no cost to the public agency. It’s free to users and agencies,” Dempsey said of the file format. “Google Transit and open data have tied together in many ways. It’s been a fantastic model to get more info to our riders.”

The next step, Dempsey and Robin say, is to begin providing real-time information, not just static data. This Saturday, November 14, MassDOT is hosting a conference for developers, transportation officials and other interested parties to create the next generation of applications, Robin said. The conference will be at the Tang Center at MIT, where plenary sessions and training will take place to help the Regional Transit Authorities, which provide transit service outside the greater Boston area, maintain their data in open available formats to developers.

“The more data that is open, the better it is for everyone,” Robin said. “And the more people know about [what MassDOT is doing] the more interesting mashups are built.”

“There is a huge place for people to be involved.”