My friend Tom Lee has been pestering the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, the agency that runs the DC area’s public transit system, to publish its schedule data in an open format. That will allow companies like Google to include the information in products like Google Transit. It seems that Google has been negotiating with WMATA for months to get access to the data, and the negotiations recently broke down, depriving DC-area transit users of the opportunity to use Google Transit. Reading between the lines, it appears that the sticking point is that WMATA wants Google to cough up some money for access to the data. It seems that WMATA earns some advertising revenue from its existing website, and it’s afraid that Google will undermine that revenue source.
While as a taxpayer I’m happy to see WMATA worrying about its bottom line, this seems like a pretty misguided decision. For starters, this really isn’t about Google. Google has been lobbying transit agencies around the country to publish data in the Google Transit Feed Specification. Although it may sound proprietary, the GTFS is an open standard. This means that absolutely anyone can download GTFS-formatted data and put it to new uses. Of course, Google has a small head start because they invented the format, but with Google making open-sourced tools available for manipulating GTFS files, the barrier to entry here is pretty small.
WMATA seems to have lost sight of the fact that it is a government agency accountable to the general public, not a profit-making business. It’s laudable that the agency is looking for new revenue sources, but it’s silly to do so in the way that’s contrary to its broader mission. And the amount of money we’re talking about here—DCist says the agency made $68,000 in ad revenue 2007—is truly trivial for an agency with a billion-dollar budget. Scuttling WMATA participation in Google Transit looks especially shortsighted when we consider that making schedule information easier to access would almost certainly bring additional riders (and, therefore, additional revenues) to the system.
Finally, and most importantly, WMATA should remember the point made by my colleagues in their recent paper: the most important uses for public data are often the ones that no one expects at the outset. Google Transit is great, and Metro riders will enjoy immediate benefits from being able to access schedule information using it. But there may be even more valuable uses to which the data could be put. And not everyone with a good idea for using the data will have the resources to negotiate directly with the WMATA for access. This is why it’s crucial that WMATA not only release the data to Google, but to make it freely and widely available to the general public, so that other private parties can get access to it. To its credit, Google has asked WMATA to do just that. WMATA should say yes.