At Thursday’s board meeting, I spoke about Google Transit and the broader issues of communication at Metro. Chief Administrative Officer Emeka Moneme stated unequivocally that Metro agrees with the principle of making schedule data available beyond just wmata.com:
Board Chair Chris Zimmerman of Arlington: Is it your view that this is potentially a very valuable thing for this agency, to be able to conclude some kind of deal with Google?
Moneme: I’ll be even broader ... it’s not necessarily about working with Google, that’s one of the many partners that we think we could work with. ... Making our information available for whomever out there that does manipulation of information to make or create applications, for example, for people’s PDAs, having a relationship with them would be good not just for us, but for our ridership and for the region. So it’s a direction we want to move in.
Zimmerman: So your goal is to be able to get information as broadly available as possible through whatever devices our [riders] are using?
M: Absolutely, whether we do it ourselves of our own volition, through our website, or with a partner that can provide that service.
Congratulations to the 774 people (and counting) who signed the petition! You’ve made a big impact. Metro has agreed in principle that making this information available to all is a goal. The campaign generated some even generated some major press stories, and got the attention of at least three Maryland state legislators. One, Bill Frick of Bethesda, followed up with a letter to WMATA General Manager John Catoe:
As the Washington region prepares to host as many as 3 to 4 million visitors this January, it is in all of our interests to disseminate information about public transit options as quickly as possible.
Based on public statements by WMATA officials, the Authority is withholding this data principally in order to extract or protect ad revenue that it believes would inure to Google’s benefit. This is myopic. WMATA is not in the online advertising business. It is in the transportation business. Inclusion in Google Transit will help WMATA perform this core function for many more individuals—and, it bears noting, increase fare collections as a result.
I urge you to reconsider your position.
Still, we have to keep pushing Metro to turn this general principle into action. Moneme didn’t actually endorse releasing the data to anyone without cost. By couching his statement in the language of “working with partners,” he kept the door open to requirements that any such partner pay, negotiate detailed contracts, meet any technical demands, and more. Bureaucratic organizations often prefer this deal-oriented, tightly-controlled route, but that impedes real innovation, which might come from an individual without the time or resources to negotiate a complex agreement with WMATA.
Moneme justified this control as a way to ensure accuracy:
Zimmerman: Is the kind of thing you’re concerned about, that if people use these services to get information which they believe comes from the transit agency and is reliable, if there’s some problem with that and they encounter difficulties on an individual basis which they then attribute to us ... Are these the kinds of things we’re talking about?
Moneme: Absolutely. Any information that is related to riding our system, we believe impacts our brand, so we want to make sure it’s accurate, that it gets people to where they need to get to in the most efficient manner, provides them with accurate information about the costs or price of our services. That’s essentially the bar or standard that we want to make sure we achieve.
Innovation can be a messy thing, sometimes, and even a little bit scary. New tools make far more information available to individuals, but sometimes at the cost of accuracy. Online maps sometimes have the wrong addresses for businesses. The Web sometimes convinces a person of incorrect information. But taking away the information isn’t the answer.
These arguments on both sides follow very familiar open systems vs. closed control lines. Mobile phone carriers long argued against letting developers build applications freely, as they can on conventional computers, arguing that they were “protecting the network”. When the World Wide Web was in its infancy, online services like Prodigy and, later, AOL claimed that the controlled, managed environment they created was better for users. Users disagreed. Metro’s reluctance to allow innovation that they don’t control is similarly shortsighted.
We’ve made a lot of progress in just one week. From refusing to even talk about Google Transit, to arguing that riders should only use the Metro trip planner, to seeing schedule data as a revenue opportunity instead of a service to riders, WMATA officials now acknowledge that greater availability and openness is their goal. They’re never going to move with Internet speed, but we can continue to push and encourage them to move faster than typical bureaucracy speed. The 774 individuals who signed the petition moved this issue forward one huge step.