Future Tense

A Broken Bus-Arrival App Demonstrates a Key Problem With Open Government Data

A woman uses her smartphone while waiting to catch a bus in Washington, D.C.

Photo by Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images.

People are becoming dependent on their cellphones, and when NextBus, a popular transportation app in Washington, D.C., stopped functioning in December, many commuters were thrown into a frenzy. There are a number of iPhone apps that communicate bus arrival times in the capital, but NextBus has been among the most efficient. Its makers received more than 7,000 frustrated emails in response to the blackout. As one of the approximately 30,000 users of the NextBus app, I’d relied on it to decide how to get to work, and the morning it failed, I kept flicking my thumb across the screen, dismayed by the incessant “connection error.” Today, the app is still down, and it isn’t expected to start working again for at least a few weeks.

Complaining about the D.C. Metro system’s ineptitude is perhaps the best place for partisans to find common ground in Washington. However, it was the app developer, not the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, that caused the ongoing NextBus outage. The app’s failure demonstrates ongoing issues in the push to put government data to use for the people. This information can transform the way people make decisions but only if it’s easily accessible.

To someone outside of the transportation business, the logistics of collecting and distributing bus data can seem rather Rube Goldberg-esque. In D.C., the process begins with GPS instruments that update information about the location of buses and traffic patterns every two minutes. This information goes to a consulting company, which applies an algorithm to calculate arrival times for 12,000 bus stops around the city. (According to the Washington Post, Metro aims for 90 percent of the estimates to be accurate.) The predictions are sent back to Metro, which communicates them to riders via phone calls, text message, and a website. Developers can use the API to create their own apps to deliver the information, too, which are often more user-friendly.

The reasons behind the NextBus app’s failure reinforce the need for standardized data. A few years ago, the consultant that oversees D.C.’s information was split into two companies. One continued to process the bus data, and the other used those data to design the NextBus app. Instead of retrieving its data from the Metro website, like most developers, the second company used a direct data feed from the buses and built the app with its own API. There were no significant problems until the contract guaranteeing this company access to the data stream expired last month. The app has gone dead because it no longer fits with the standard API format that D.C. provides to the public.

Like a diplomat’s choice to hold a conference between nations in a shared language, the D.C. Metro agency’s choice to promote a single API indicates that it wants information to be distributed widely. As part of a series on government and data published in Future Tense earlier this year, Alissa Black explained that Google has partnered with more than 500 transit agencies to develop a format, called a General Transit Feed Specification, that standardizes the format by which they open data to the public. This universal format enables developers to build well-organized and innovative apps that can work in any city using GTFS. Each of the nation’s 10 most populated cities makes available their GTFS data. But they are in the minority: Only 27 percent of all U.S. transit agencies supply completely open data.  

More transit companies need to follow the example set by large cities and, increasingly, by organizations in other fields. Several agencies, including the World Bank and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, already offer open data sets. Just last week, Yelp announced that starting in New York and San Francisco, restaurant reviews on its site will include health inspection information. As government data become more standardized and available, app developers will undoubtedly find creative ways to make it useful to people.

However, as the blackout of NextBus shows, the government isn’t the only problem—app developers need to cooperate, too. For now, I can only hope that the wait (for the bus and for more open data) won’t take long.