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MTA responds to Transit App over bus tracker

The Maryland Transit Administration has responded to Transit App’s release of bus tracking app and blog posts critical of the bus tracker produced by the agency.

MTA’s rebuttal is below:

Earlier today we here at the Maryland Transit Administration were happy to read (in several places) that “civic hackers” had “saved Baltimore $600,000 in one day.” Like software development itself though, the real story is a bit more complicated.

We appreciate the efforts of @transitapp and the civic hackers of the world. It’s another great way to present the data out of the interface we have toiled to build over the last four years. We know because it does exactly what our mobile application already does – at least in one way. What the civic hacker’s app doesn’t do is allow customers to sign up and get real-time bus info via text messaging and/or email. Nor will it make this real-time info available via the good old telephone, and through MTA customer service agents.

For us, it’s all about the interface. Our My MTA Tracker for Bus system works through a data interface we created which enables our pre-Google (indeed, almost pre-Internet) CAD/AVL system to interface with the software on which the real-time system is built. That’s because the decades old CAD/AVL system, and its data, are not web-based. It isn’t the raw data coming from the pre-Google CAD/AVL system that makes apps work; it’s the translation of that data that helps the My MTA Tracker for Bus, as well as the civic hacker’s app, work in the marketplace. Without that interface, neither the civic hacker’s app nor our My MTA Tracker for Bus system would be here today.

Our top priority was bringing real-time information to our customers, not making the data out of the interface we created (which makes app development possible) available to the public. Currently, that data is not in a secure enough environment which would allow us to make it publicly available in a responsible way. As any experienced data developer would tell  you, we are stewards of this information and obliged to protect and manage it responsibly. But we are working on it.

Why are we still working on it? Well, our data is not in GTFS-RT format. (For those non-developers out there, GTFS-RT – General Transit Feed Specifications – Real Time – is the standard transit data format used by developers everywhere to make transit apps.) The fact of the matter is our CAD/AVL system pre-dates Google. That’s why GTFS-RT was never a requirement.  Now, because GTFS-RT has become the industry standard, the cost to convert our CAD/AVL data prior to the development of the interface was going to cost MD taxpayers an additional $600,000. This didn’t seem like a smart option to us since we are in the process of investing in a brand new real-time system (which uses GTFS data, by the way), which we hope to implement in a few years.

That is why seeing the app delivered today through @transitapp came as such a pleasant surprise. We want nothing more than for our private sector friends to improve upon what we’ve already done. In essence, we have built the “real-time” foundation on which all other apps for our system can be designed, and we want to see that happen. So, to further those efforts (and yes, civic hackers have helped us speed this announcement up 🙂 we are happy to report that our engineers have been working for weeks to figure out a way to move the data we made possible into a secure enough environment in which third party developers can safely make use of it without compromising our system. While we’re not ready to divulge the time-frame, we are getting close. And we look forward to seeing the results of that effort as much as our friends in the software development world do.

We know that our real-time system isn’t quite in “app” form, but we are confident that our mobile user interface can play ball with the best of what might come. And even if it doesn’t hang in there, nothing would make us happier than to see the civic hackers of the world take what we’ve been able to create, and better our efforts. Because at the end of the day, it’s all about our customers.

About Adam Bednar

Adam Bednar covers real estate and development for The Daily Record.