Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT)
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MassDOT and the MBTA are constantly asked to do more with less. Both organizations shoulder billions of dollars in debt and are funded with revenue streams that cannot meet the financial demands of a deteriorating transportation infrastructure. The organizations must respond by operating a more streamlined, efficient bureaucracy and applying new ways of thinking to old challenges. The MassDOT Developers Initiative exemplifies that type of new thinking. MassDOT and other transportation organizations around the world have always struggled to deliver timely and accurate information to users of transportation infrastructure. Whether it be real-time traffic reports, bus schedules, road or system maps, there is a gap between what agencies can provide and what the public demands.
Information dissemination is generally not a core mission of transportation agencies (which are more concerned with rebuilding roads and bridges, and operating buses and trains). However, transportation information is valuable to customers, and can increase the efficiency of a transportation system by improving mode splits and increasing transit use. Traditionally, the strategy at MassDOT and the MBTA has been to operate as a retailer of customer information – to connect directly with travelers and potential riders. Such a strategy has resulted in a series of projects and efforts, including 511 (a traveler information phone system) and a long-delayed effort to install “next train countdown” signs at MBTA stations.
In July 2009, the Executive Office of Transportation launched the Developers Page, which hosts transportation data that can be used by third-party software developers to build websites, mobile applications, and other applications that deliver customer information more efficiently and effectively to users of the Commonwealth’s transportation system. The Developers Page hosts this data in standard formats that are easily-accessible to developers. These data sets include schedule and route information for the MBTA and many of the state’s regional transit authorities, and a simple feed of wait-time at RMV branches. This effort built on similar “Developers Page” efforts at other transportation agencies around the country, including the Bay Area Rapid Transit in San Francisco and TriMET in Portland, Oregon.
MassDOT marketed the data hosted on the Developers Page by engaging local software developers and other third parties in a series of meetings and events. The relationship between MassDOT and developers is outlined in a “Relationship Principles” document. MassDOT decided to licenses its data at no cost, which lowers the startup cost for firms wishing to enter the market. Perhaps most importantly, MassDOT encourages third-party developers to profit from redistributing this information, either by selling it to users directly or tying in the content with advertisements that generate revenue. This arrangement encourages private investment, which is then leveraged to help customers. EOT became MassDOT on November 1st. By then, Developers had already created five applications that help riders navigate the MBTA system or RMV customers get better information about wait times at branches. To foster third-party efforts, MassDOT reached out to developers, holding a developers’ meeting and engaging the community through Twitter and Google Groups. MassDOT held the first-annual MassDOT Developers Conference on November 14, 2009 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The daylong event attracted more than 200 guests, including developers, entrepreneurs, transportation stakeholders from across the state, and others interested in making transportation data useful for Massachusetts travelers. MassDOT also announced the winners of the 2009 MassDOT Developers Challenge, which inspired developers to create both mobile phone applications and data visualizations based on open-data feeds. The Challenge produced applications that would have cost tens of thousands of dollars for MassDOT to produce on its own. The MassDOT Developers effort was founded on the belief that releasing data to independent developers was achievable at virtually no cost. This is a stark contrast to the multi-million-dollar cost of building its own retail information distribution platforms. When launching this effort, MassDOT asked what information was already available in standard formats but perhaps difficult for third parties to find or use.
For a number of years, the MBTA and Massachusetts Regional Transit Authorities (RTAs) has been working to put schedule and route information into an open and standard format called the General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS). This is the same format that Google uses to power the transit trip-planning features of their online mapping application. Because much of its schedule and route information was already in GTFS, MassDOT was able to simply make these files available to third party software developers for download on the Developers Page, all at no marginal cost to the agency. MassDOT also leveraged the MBTA’s T-Alerts notification system at no cost. This retail-focused system sends emails and text messages directly to rides with updates on MBTA service. Underlying this system is a database and distribution server. By publicly exposing an RSS feed of the alerts in this system, at no cost to the agency, software developers were able to integrate alerts into their applications. This approach is a contrast to many other agencies and Governments that “look” for information to “open” on their Developers pages. Often, these agencies will expend significant resources to make information available before seeing what was already in standards formats that could have been released at no cost in a short period of time.
The Developers Initiative works by leveraging existing investments already made by MassDOT and the MBTA. Here is just one example of how the Initiative has effectively managed costs:
In 2007, the MBTA launched T-Alerts, which provided direct emails and text messages to riders who signed up for the service on the MBTA’s website. Operators at the MBTA’s central control center enter service alert information into a web-form, and the alerts are sent to the MBTA website and to those signed-up to receive alerts. The MBTA did not allow users to sign-up for multiple lines, nor did it open a feed to developers. In September, 2009, when the Developers Initiative approached the MBTA about building a developers feed for T-Alerts, it turned out that one had already been built! The MBTA had already paid for this functionality, but it had chosen not to share or expose the feed with the public. Flipping the switch on this feed cost the MBTA/MassDOT nothing and it allowed third-parties to much more effectively redistribute T-Alerts to customers.
The Developers Initiative is a significant cost savings opportunity for MassDOT and the MBTA. The lessons learned from the initiative permit the agencies to rethink planned expenditures that, as currently designed, offer lower value to MassDOT and the MBTA. Savings can be invested in the core-missions of the agencies or used to retire debt. This initiative embodies the Patrick Administration’s civic engagement and support for public-private partnerships. By opening up this data, the MassDOT Developers initiative enables citizens to engage with the Commonwealth’s transportation system in a new way, and to work together to build applications that help themselves and others.
Today, there are more than ten applications and websites that use MassDOT data to better serve customers. These applications would have never existed without the Developers effort. Massachusetts travelers are using these applications every day to plan their trips, learn about wait times at the Registry, or find the location of their bus. Importantly, these solutions are not provided for just the newest, most expensive technologies. Developers have built applications that supply information by text message, through a local (617) phone number, and on a countdown sign that has been installed in a small business in Jamaica Plain. The Developers Initiative has effectively increased the dissemination of information to all citizens at all income and ability levels.
The MassDOT Developers effort has always been about taking valuable information in internal MassDOT systems and making it available publicly. MassDOT started with a small number of data sets from the Regional Transit Authorities and RMV and have expanded since its initial launch. By starting with smaller agencies and demonstrating success, MassDOT has been able to build momentum to release data for other operating divisions. Within two months of launching the Developers Page, the agency was able to launch MBTA GTFS files. The T-Alert feed followed shortly thereafter. After a successfully rollout of transit information, MassDOT was able to push internally to release a feed of highway construction event information. This feed is shared with radio stations, TV stations, websites, and GPS and mapping companies, so that information about road closures can get to drivers.
In November 2009, MassDOT released a pilot feed of real-time bus locations and arrival predictions for five bus routes as part of a trial program. This feed was quickly used by developers to build the wide array of applications and devices now available to customers on those routes. MassDOT’s successes and innovations from the Developer community are already leading it to re-think how it will make information available for all MBTA bus routes. MassDOT expects to release a feed of all MBTA bus routes by the end of summer 2010, at significantly lower cost than previous estimates.
Lastly, MassDOT’s developer community has grown dramatically since it began in July, 2009. The first meetings at a non-profit in Cambridge were attended by 20-30 local developers. Recent events have seen as many as 200 attendees. More than 200 individuals subscribe to the Google Group, and the MassDOT Developers account is followed by more than 600 others on Twitter. The Developers Initiative is consistently able to leverage this community for new innovations and as a testing ground for new ideas.
MassDOT plans to build on this successful and well-received program. In just a few short months, the MassDOT Developers Initiative has helped create transportation applications that were unimaginable just one year ago. By the fall, the agency expects that MBTA but riders will be able to know exactly where their bus is at any moment, and will be able to access that information on a computer, a sign in a small business along the route, or by accessing the information through a cell phone. This is a substantial benefit for existing MBTA bus riders and an ideal way to attract new riders to the system. Once available for buses, the MBTA plans to investigate opening up feeds for all of its other modes. Within the organization, many employees have noticed these efforts and are beginning to integrate requirements for open data as new systems are built and procurements are started. In the coming months, the agency’s goal is to embed the Developers Initiative within the bureaucracy at MassDOT, and to solidify its strategy of making MassDOT and the MBTA a wholesaler of information. This strategy will allow us to provide better information to travelers at much lower cost to taxpayers.