Arlington’s monitors show real-time train info but only bus schedules currently.

Michael Perkins was able to get a copy of WMATA’s NextBus contract, with financial information redacted. Tom Lee scrutinized the contract to try to answer a nagging question: Could WMATA release an open, free data feed of the NextBus predictions if it chose?

Massachusetts has a trial real-time feed for select buses. That feed provides the locations of buses as well as NextBus’s predictions. BART just launched a more extensive API with its real-time train predictions as well as trip planning results.

"NextBus Information Systems,” the company that developed the iPhone NextBus app, has demanded removal of other apps that screen scraped NextBus to get the bus arrival times. They pay NextBus for access to the data, and NextBus can legally stop applications from screen scraping their site.

But what about the agencies themselves? They own the transponders on the buses, and are paying NextBus good money for its service ($15,000 a month for WMATA). Yet NextBus uses its own algorithms to make predictions of bus arrival times. DC released the raw locations for the Circulator instead of trying to predict arrival times on its own (since it doesn’t contract with NextBus). Would WMATA have to do the same, or could it give developers the prediction data that NextBus computed?

The answer appears to be yes.

Tom writes,

It’s possible that I’m missing something, but at this point I think my pre-contract understanding has been validated: WMATA has full rights to the data, which means it can give the data away if it wants to. Now we just need WMATA to give the all-clear! We may also need them to mirror the data or otherwise ensure that Nextbus can’t complain that we’re unfairly hammering their servers.

If Tom is right, WMATA could set up an API for anyone to pull down NextBus predictions and integrate them into video screens like the ones in the Arlington County offices, mobile apps, or other tools. That is, unless budget cuts force too many layoff in the IT department, one of the ones potentially targeted for reductions in the FY2011 budget.

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.