Municipalities worldwide are opening data to developers who provide free or inexpensive apps for consumers, businesses, and governments. Open data is a win for everyone. It has even helped me.
As I wrote previously, I live in Montgomery County, Md. My house is a 25-minute walk from northwest Washington, DC. I've always hated driving, because it's boring. I can't read or sleep at the wheel, and I have a terrible sense of direction (thank the gods for GPS). So I often take public transportation. Several months ago, I was waiting for the Metro ("subway" to non-Washingtonians), which has been experiencing scheduled weekend delays because of safety upgrades.
I asked a transit worker about the delays, and he asked whether I had the DC Metro Transit application on my Android phone. I didn't. He pulled out his phone and used the app to display the real-time arrival schedule. It's useful for finding bus and train schedules, transit news, service disruptions, and more.
DC Metro Transit is free with advertisements or $2.99 without them. Another app, DC Rider, is available for both Android and iOS. Both apps use Washington-area transit data, made freely available via APIs.
Transit applications are among the most popular municipal apps, because their value is obvious. Anyone who uses public transportation appreciates seeing schedules, especially in real-time. The more modern the transit system, the more likely it will be able to gather real-time location data.
Those apps are based on available transit data and illustrate how municipalities are increasingly accepting the open data movement. For example, last year, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg signed a law requiring city agencies to place much of their numerical data into easily accessible formats by 2018. Yes, that's too long to wait, but it's better than nothing.
Portland, Ore., has embraced open data and has posted a catalogue of municipal apps. "The Catalog is unique because it includes public datasets from a wide array of local government jurisdictions," the government says on its website. "It is the only inter-jurisdictional repository of local public data of its kind in the United States, at least as far as we know." I suspect there are or will be a variety of similar catalogues.
Another compelling app is Public Art PDX, which indexes and displays dozens of Portland area locations in nine categories comprising hundreds of works of art. The app shows photos, addresses, and descriptions of the art, which includes ceramics, fiber, murals, paintings, photography, and sculptures.
An independent software developer, Matt Blair, used data from Portland's Regional Arts & Culture Council to build the app, but he had to spend weeks ensuring that the images and descriptions were accurate and converting the data into a form that could be integrated into the app.
Previously, Blair won an award for another app, PDX Trees, which provides photos and other information about the city's special "heritage trees."
Portland is one of the cities that has held contests for apps, which is a great way to encourage development. Google recently held a contest for developers to produce apps that will "improve their community or government using the Google Places API." Google Places offers a variety of information about businesses, tourist sites, and other locations.
The contest ran until Nov. 30, but the winners won't be posted until Jan. 30. Google has posted more than 50 submitted apps, and city executives and IT departments should take a look at them. With the wealth of information available on the Web about municipal apps based on open data, there's no excuse for cities to promote anything less than excellent applications.
Re: The bus @Nicole It's not just in NYC. I live in a considerably smaller area and our bus schedules aren't so easily read. The routes are even a bit bizzare. Decoding the time/route schedules here takes a different midset for sure!
A number of transit apps for cities have real-time arrival times and mapping for buses. Not all cities have GPS on their buses or want to spend the money for the logistics for consumer use. However, it's becoming increasingly common.
One possible problem with major cities like New York is GPS signals don't always work well when blocked by tall buildings. There are other methods besides GPS, but they often aren't as accurate and, of course, cost money to purchase and maintain.
As I was writing this, I was thinking whether some cities have bus positioning data for their own internal use, but don't offer it in public APIs. I don't know.
Public transportation systems often sell advertising, such as posters inside subways and buses and giant ads on the side of buses, but I haven't seen any ads for apps on those vehicles or in the stations. To be honest, though, I almost never look at any of those ads because I'm usually reading or listening to technology podcasts. So there could be giant posters for apps that I've never seen.
Yes, it would be a good idea for transportation systems to advertise their apps, although the two apps I noted for the Washington, D.C. area are from independent developers and it might not be appropriate or even legal for the transit authorities to advertise them. However, apps that are owned by the city certainly woul be advertised and cities also have sections on their Web sites for their mobile apps.
The bus I'm always on the subway in NYC, but I would be much more inclined to take the bus as well if I had a really clear and simple app that told me exactly where the bus was in real-time, when it would be coming, and when it would get me to my destination. I've never understood why bus timetables have to be produced in such a way that you need a degree in decoding in order to understand them (OK fine, it's not that difficult, but it's a pain!).
Re: Metro Transportation Apps @Alan Does the transportaion system sell advertising? Perhaps it would be a good use of space to advertise mobile apps in and on trains. My guess is they're not doing this already since you ride often and had no idea an app existed.
Re: Metro Transportation Apps Thanks Alan for such a great post.
The fact that cities develop real-time data and infraestructure in order to be able to liberate APIs in order to help the citizens to ease the stress and uncertainty that creates work, train delays and such. If we know what's going on it will be harder that we get angry. Another thing that I find marvellous is that the internet is becoming an essential service for us.
Many cities have mass transportation apps, and the real-time tracking is certainly the best aspect. Also, as cities offer cellular and WiFi inside subway stations, users will be able to get real-time info. while they wait.
Not all cities have real-time tracking, unfortunately, and the official schedules for buses, subways, trains, etc. are often fiction compared to the actual arrival times! That's why real-time data is so useful.
However, the cost of GPS hardware is so inexpensive nowadays that more cities can afford it on buses, except that real-time tracking incurs more expenses than just the hardware.
It's amazing these days the things they have apps for. With most metro apps, if you have your phone GPS turned on, the app can tell where you are, what station i is closet to you and feep you the time of arrival and so on. I think most of the major cities have mass transportation apps for the iphone or android or windows phones these days.
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