SORTA: Set your data free!

April 18th, 2013

SORTA recently announced(among other things) that it’s new uptown transit center will get next-arrival-time signs with real-time information just like Government Square has had for about a year.

next arrival time sign at government square transit center

Basically, an electric sign tells waiting passengers exactly when the next vehicle is going to be there based on that vehicle’s actual location as determined by an on-board GPS device.

This is fantastic news! Next-arrival-time signs do a number of good things:

Such a delightful development raises a question though. While I appreciate that SORTA is adding these signs in a second location, I wonder why the information the signs provide couldn’t be available online such as through a smart phone or even via text message1. It would seem to me that if it’s possible for even one such sign to work, then a whole system must already be in place to manage and share the location information between buses and signs.

arrival time speaker at govenment square in cincinnati ohio

There’s no good reason that same system couldn’t be adapted to exchange information in the same way between buses and smart-phones or buses and computers.¬†Instead of having permanent next-arrival-time signs in only two places, we could have them anywhere there’s an internet connection. We could carry them in our pockets!

This isn’t an original idea. There’s actually a bar in Portland OR that has a big ol’ sign by the door telling patrons if they have time for another drink.

And there’s also a website that couldn’t be simpler to use telling passengers exactly when the streetcar is coming to any stop you might select(in either direction). And there’s applications already built for smart phones…

Tri-Met streetcar sign

TriMet Does not own or operate this bar. They shared their data and people used it.

And closer to home, the University of Cincinnati is already offering a live map of their student shuttles.

So what’s keeping us from having such convenient transit information here in Cincinnati? We have the GPS systems in place, the concept has been demonstrated in more than a dozen cities, and there’s software already developed to help disseminate this data to the public.

SORTA: You need to release a web API to let developers make the data you’re already collecting even more useful to the riding public. If two signs are better than one, isn’t an unlimited number of signs, available exactly where and when people need them very much better?

I know what you’re going to say…”We’ve got too many things to do, we don’t want to maintain anything, and IT stuff is hard damnit!” Let me assure you, this can be a very, very simple project. This time last year I was developing an application programming interface for the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. This isn’t something you need to maintain and update. You need to set it and forget it. You don’t want to change the interface.

Not only would such an API be useful for people looking for the next arrival time, it could potentially be incredibly interesting as a teaching tool for helping the public understand how the system works. It could help us compare scheduled times and speeds to actual times and speeds throughout the day and let citizens hold public officials accountable for their decisions on infrastructure projects that effect transit. SORTA, if you want to make a case that your proposed BRT lines on major corridors need a designated right of way, what could do that better than a map showing the actual locations and speeds of buses in those crowded corridors at rush hour?

Set your data free, SORTA! Let us help you make our transit system truly useful and customer friendly! Let us advocate for better service with meaningful data!

(I’d be happy to personally help walk someone through setting this up, and I might even be willing to contribute a bit of code…you just need to ask!)

Show 1 footnote

  1. DC provides this service for example, and I know a few other cities do too. There’s a sign at each stop with that stops ID number and a 5 digit number for people to text. You text the number with the ID number and the number of the route and it replies within a few seconds with the expected arrival time.

6 responses to “SORTA: Set your data free!”

  1. Jill Dunne says:

    Hi Nate — Jill from Metro here. I talked to our IT department and they targeting this summer to release a web API for developers!

  2. Neil says:

    Nate, I’m holding you to task for having a smartphone app ready before anyone else ;)

  3. AppLogic says:

    Nate/Neil do you have any information on the availability of this data?

    • Nate Wessel says:

      I continue to press them for this data, but I’m getting nowhere.
      Every once in a while if you push them they’ll throw out a release date, like above, but they never stick to it.