A developer created a mobile app for MTA riders, claiming to save the transportation agency half a million dollars

A Montreal app developer called TransitApp is claiming to have done in one afternoon what the Maryland Transit Administration claims would have taken more than half a million dollars and who knows how long: It turned the transit agency's real-time bus data into an mobile app for riders.

TransitApp uses open data to track transportation departure times in 89 regions. "The best practices now in the transit world, and what you see a lot of agencies doing, is they don't even bother creating their own proprietary [interfaces]," says TransitApp strategy and development director Jake Sion. "They just make the data available to developers. There are a lot of developers out there that can create a really great app for a pretty low cost."

MTA kept its data to itself, building its own interface for the tracker. That interface doesn't come as an app. Whether on a desktop or phone, it requires a browser. The agency argued it would take $600,000 to get data from its aging system into a format—General Transit Feed Specification, or GTFS—that would allow outside developers to easily create apps with the data. It wasn't worth it to spend money on that now, the agency argued, because a new internal tracking system would start generating GTFS-formatted data in perhaps as few as three years.

Despite the lack of GTFS formatting, TransitApp thought it could do something with the MTA's data. Sion says MTA didn't answer a request for that data. Enter Chris Whong, a developer who moved from Baltimore to Brooklyn a few years ago. He had founded a Facebook group called Baltimore Transit, and the group was discussing the new MTA bus tracker. 

"Open data advocates were like, 'This is a serious problem for this not to be developer-ready,'" Whong says. "That got me tinkering."

Just two weeks after the official launch of the MTA tracker, Whong had figured out a way to capture the MTA data. He used it to build a more comprehensive real-time map of running buses and a more simply designed way to enter a bus stop for real-time arrival estimates.

"[Whong] found the queries that are used by the Baltimore bus tracker website to get vehicle positions," said Sion. "Because he made his project open-source, we were able to use the same query."

Using an "in-house prediction engine," Sion says, his company is now able to provide real-time mapping and stop estimates in an app.

The MTA has said that other bus tracker systems generate accurate real-time data between 60 and 80 percent of the time, and that its own tracker was in the "higher end of that." That's not what Sion says he's found with TransitApp. 

"We've been seeing about one-third thus far," Sion said, adding that Transit App filters out 10 to 15 percent of real-time data "where the data appears really off." MTA reaffirmed the 60 to 80 percent estimate. "A querying tool provides estimates several times a day," MTA spokesperson Paul Shepard said.

"But from what I've read," Sion continued, "more and more are going to come online" during the next three months as the MTA tracker gets beta tested.

UPDATE: MTA wrote a long response to TransitApp's claim of saving the agency $600,000 dollars. "It isn’t the raw data coming from the pre-Google CAD/AVL system that makes apps work; it’s the translation of that data that helps the My MTA Tracker for Bus, as well as the civic hacker’s app, work in the marketplace," MTA wrote in part. "Without that interface, neither the civic hacker’s app nor our My MTA Tracker for Bus system would be here today."

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