Image by urbanbohemian.

Tom Lee has decided to stop developing a NextBus-based application. The good NextBus iPhone application is one factor, but so is the way NextBus data is all wrapped up in royalties, deals, and intellectual property debates.

Metro generates bus location data with GPS devices, then sends that data to NextBus. They’re paying NextBus a good amount of money to then run a service for users to access bus predictions. NextBus and “NextBus Information Systems,” the licensee which developed the iPhone app, is willing to let others get access to the data, but only if they pay royalty fees. And NextBus Information Systems hasn’t hesitated to demand removal of other applications that screen scrape NextBus data. Lee calls this “Nextbus’s slightly dodgy inclination to charge Metro, then turn around and charge the people who fund Metro.”

NextBus does use their own algorithms to generate predictions, so it’s not unfair for them to ask for licensing fees. However, the raw data on the bus locations isn’t NextBus’s, it’s Metro’s. It’d be great if Metro took steps to make the raw GPS tracking data available to other developers as well, and to clarify the legal status. People could develop applications like the Circulator “Where’s My Bus” which, while not quite as useful as NextBus and its predictions, is still useful.

People could also use the data for research, like Tom’s idea to gather data on how often bus routes arrive on time. I once graphed on-time performance for the L2, and could generate more of these and other interesting visualizations with this data. People could compute how much bus bunching takes place, or where buses get delayed most often, and use that knowledge to lobby local jurisdictions to add signal priority and queue jumpers at key points.

Metro isn’t making any money off NextBus. If their contract with NextBus gives NextBus exclusive rights to the data, then it’s shortchanging riders. If not, Metro should empower others, like Tom Lee, to access bus location data and write valuable software.

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David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle.