Photo by AnneBPhoto on Flickr.

Fairfax County operates one of the largest suburban bus systems in the region. They could empower mobile app users and software developers to drive more riders to their services by publishing their transit information. Unfortunately, they are letting some misconceptions about open data stop them from taking this valuable step.

Transit agencies have two separate yet related options for open data. They can release their schedule data publicly using the open General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS), which lets anyone build software applications and perform analyses, like this one of speeds versus stop density. The other is to sign an agreement with Google to be included in Google Transit.

Spokesperson Ellen Kamilakis explained Fairfax’s concerns:

The historical problem with GTFS is that it is a Google-owned format. Using it gave all indemnities to Google (and not a lot—if any) to Fairfax. The County Attorney reviewed the license agreement and didn’t think it was a good idea. You’ll have to ask them [the county attorney] for more detailed information on their POV.  There is also a small concern that if we publish the data in that format, we will have to publish it in other formats too, and right now we don’t have the resources for that.
Ms. Kamilakis directed further questions to the county-level public affairs team, who said they’re “looking into the issue.”It’s important to separate out the two issues: a deal with Google, and publishing the data publicly in an open source way.The GTFS format, while it was developed by Google in partnership with Portland’s TriMet transit agency, is an open standard, usable by anyone who wants to publish their data.  The specification for the standard is very basic and available to everyone. There is no proprietary technology involved. Governments do not have to sign any kind of agreement with Google or anyone else to publish data in the format.Fairfax is reluctant to sign an agreement with Google that required indemnity. While we disagree with this decision, we understand their reluctance. But this only applies to participating in Google Transit, not to publishing data, which as above is something the county could do simultaneously or could not do at all.WMATA has been publishing a feed for months without any Google agreement, and application developers have been able to use that data, though its non-open source friendly legal terms have prevented others. Fairfax could publish its data with no indemnification and no restrictions, as many other agencies have done, with no contract that its lawyers could object to.If they publish data in the GTFS format, would Fairfax be asked to publish data in other formats? It’s possible, but not likely.  The GTFS format has become the de facto standard for publishing open transit data. It is very unlikely that many potential users of Fairfax’s information would be unsatisfied with GTFS and demand another format. And if someone did, Fairfax would be completely within their rights as good public stewards to refuse requests that place unnecessary burdens on staff to produce formats that are not very popular.The other issue is Google Transit. At the recent EMBARQ panel, DC CTO Bryan Sivak said that getting Circulator onto Google Transit simply required the will to push through the obstacles from lawyers on both sides. Lawyers’ job is to raise all possible concerns about any contract. Sometimes, the job of those working with the lawyers is to determine which of these concerns are too trivial and outweighed by the public interest.

OpenTripPlanner.
On the other hand, Google really ought to stop asking for indemnification. They don’t demand this from Web sites that want to be listed in their index, for example. Open source software developers have been working on OpenTripPlanner, an alternative trip planning system that doesn’t require any contracts and indemnification, only open data feeds.If most US transit agencies release their data in the open GTFS format without license restrictions, before long riders everywhere will be able to plan trips, track their buses and trains, and access other useful transit information using completely open tools that aren’t dependent on Google or anyone else. That’s good for everyone who lives and works in Fairfax County.

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Michael Perkins blogs about Metro operations and fares, performance parking, and any other government and economics information he finds on the Web. He lives with his wife and two children in Arlington, Virginia.

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.