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Transit Transparency: Effective Disclosure through Open Data

Executive Summary

Introduction 

Public transit agencies have employed intelligent systems for determining schedules and routes and for monitoring the real-time location and status of their vehicle fleets for nearly two decades. But until recently, the data generated by daily operations in the transit system were only available to managers and engineers inside agencies. Transit riders could consult static information when planning trips, primarily through printed or online timetables or maps. Where dynamic train or bus arrival predictions were accessible, riders could only see this information on fixed signs at transit stations or stops. With the popular adoption of smartphones and other mobile technologies transit riders gained the capacity to access information anywhere and at any time. Some transit agencies have responded by publicly releasing disaggregated data files for schedules and real-time feeds of vehicle locations. These agencies have thus empowered civic entrepreneurs to innovate in delivering transit information to riders through mobile applications and other technologically-assisted means.

Approach & Methodology

This study examines the process by which transit agencies in the U.S. disclosed their operations data to the public and analyzes how constituencies for that data, particularly software developers and transit riders, used that information. This report is based upon five case histories of public transit agencies – Portland’s TriMet, Boston’s MBTA, Chicago’s CTA, Washington’s WMATA, and New York’s MTA. We sought to understand the origin, evolution and effect of those agencies’ open data initiatives using extensive interview work, web research, and analyses of customer surveys. Through this methodology, we identified the drivers and barriers to adoption of transparent, consumer-oriented information systems by transit agencies.

Findings

Transit agencies adopted transparency strategies in order to create more opportunities for riders to access transit information and therefore improve levels of customer service. Agency officials achieved a broader dissemination of transit information through a process of co-production with local software developers who acted as third-party information intermediaries by generating a marketplace of customer-facing digital tools and applications for riders. These local computer programmers reshaped, reproduced and recombined the disaggregated, machine-readable electronic files made available by transit agencies to meet the needs of diverse transit riders, customized to each transit system’s unique qualities.

Public disclosure of operations information was a novel approach for transit agencies. They had not anticipated that outside developers — who were also transit riders — would be interested in working with the same raw data that engineers were using internally to manage vast and complex transportation systems. But because agencies had already adopted intelligent

transportation systems for internal operations they were able to adapt these technologies to disclose schedule, route and real-time arrival data for public use.

The adaptation process from a closed to an open data strategy was not straightforward. Obstacles to sharing operations data with the public included risk-averse institutional cultures inside transit agencies, proprietary vendor contracts that precluded sharing data with third parties, and time-consuming technical efforts to produce accurate datasets suitable for public disclosure and use.

Open data strategies spread to transit agencies in other U.S. cities due the availability of a data standard for transit schedules and the development of communities of transparency around transit data. Transit agency managers, computer programmers, and transit riders engaged in collaborative efforts to make data accessible, timely, accurate and useful. Together, they co- produced a marketplace of customer-facing transit applications targeting the needs of diverse information users. Transit systems with the greatest number and diversity of third-party applications were those whose agency managers developed strong relationships with local software developers.

At this time, the outcomes of transit transparency efforts are uncertain. There have been few systematic studies that examine whether data disclosure is driving improved performance by transit agencies. In terms of rider effects, preliminary survey results support prior research that mobile access to real-time bus arrival information decreases the perceived and actual wait times for riders. Further, improved access to transit information gives riders greater discretion over their time. Future research will seek to understand whether reduced wait times translate into increased satisfaction with overall transit service over time.

Conclusion

The public disclosure of transit information by agencies is a successful case of open data adoption in the United States. Transit transparency offers insights into the elements that enable effective disclosure and delivery of digital information to the public in cases where there is a strong demand for that information, and where the disclosed information is available at the right place and time for users to act upon.

Recommendations

From the disclosure experiences of the transit agencies examined for this study, we present four recommendations to consider in designing future transparency systems:

  1. Identify the problem to be solved with better data.
  2. Prioritize the disclosure of data for which there is public demand.
  3. Determine whether information intermediaries play a role in the disclosure ecosystem and support the development of that ecosystem.
  4. Adopt an open, non-proprietary data standard.