Silicon Valley: Public transportation fosters innovation through open data

By February 17, 2012
Keywords : Smart city, America
train in a station

By opening up a public data feed for third party developers, the San Francisco Bay Area Transit System found an ideal way to foster innovative application development for mobile devices.


The BART has been sharing transit data for over the past 13 years, but recently opened up a public data feed for third party developers. BART began to share information publically on real time departures, elevator advisories, geospatial data and on APIs (application programming interfaces). This concept known as open data is founded on the notion that data should be available for anyone to use freely without authorizations or copyright restrictions. By publically disclosing transit information online, the BART is looking to directly benefit customers without having the intention of in-house developers to create applications. Unlike other open data initiatives, this one doesn’t require registration to use the data. The only agreement BART asks is for third-party developers not to use the BART trademark on applications.

Information sharing is a two-way street

Not only do application developers benefit from BART's open data initiative, but BART in turn is able to take advantage of applications that are created to understand what the public wants the most. "The largest benefit is this competition that we've tried to create. We don't just release data and that's it; developers talk to us so we can get ideas from them as well." says Tim Moore, BART's website manager. In other words, by opening its data to the public, BART also creates an eco-system where third party developers are working together with lead mobile developers to create successful and competitive apps. Application developers such as iPhone and Android have worked with BART, using arrival and departure information in websites and messaging services.

Multiple apps created compliment each other

Thanks to its open data initiative, BART has seen numerous apps being developed that compliment each other. Different developers identify different needs or usages that need to be answered. For instance, an application called "Estately" uses data to locate real estate listings next to BART stations. Another application “ iBart” has a trip planner, scheduled arrivals, a multi-touch BART map, and potential service advisories included. Open data initiatives can therefore give birth to a wide variety of apps that compliment each other, but "One of the real advantages is that I have to strike a balance and not endorse certain applications. Customers gravitate to applications that are the most effective and they understand what apps are better than others, which is useful for us." says Tim Moore.

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