Open Data at MassDOT: Getting it done

via we the goverati

I went to the MassDOT Developers Conference today – what a treat. The efforts that are going on to release transit data may seem small – publishing data that already existed in schedule format does not seem that hard – but coming from government I understand the difficult hurdles it takes to get something like this off the ground. Congrats to Chris Dempsey and Josh Rubin for doing an excellent job today.

Some highlights….

Jeffery Mullan, Secretary of the new Mass Department of Transportation (several agencies were consolidated into one mega-agencies earlier this month) spoke about his vision for the new agency, including an increase having more stakeholders involved in the decision making process at the Department. According to Mullan, people who use the system should be involved in its improvement. Thumbs up to this.

Liz Levin, MassDOT Board Member with many decades of experience in transportation was also quite inspiring. She put a call out to the community to help with some of the Departments challenges…increasing the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of programs that help disabled persons use the system, keeping track of trips (including multi-modal trips, associated costs, and tracking carbon emissions), reducing fatalities, eliminating the need to stop at toll roads, shifting more people onto transit systems from cars, and (my favorite) making technological advances available to all people – not just those with iphones.

Robin Chase, the co-founder of Zipcar and keynote speaker for this event gave a fascinating presentation on “the power of open.” I will not be able to give her presentation justice, but lets just say she captivated the audience with a story about personal guest bedrooms, couchsurfing, and hotels to spin a tale about how the platform can transform industries and practices to impact people and create positive change. If you have not had a chance to hear her speak, you should definitely check her out.

Ohh, also check out one of the cool runner’s up visualization, “A Day in the Life of the MBTA”


Finally, Chris Dempsey talked about the Department’s traditional model for making data public:

1. make signs that display bus arrival times
2. create mbta app/phone line where people can get information
3. open data for developers (maybe)

Moving forward, while not official policy, they want to experiment with flipping the process, so that opening the data comes first, with the Department’s developments to follow. While an interesting model, I still worry about access issues – people who just want to rely on signs will be at a disadvantage here, if the Department soley relies on apps and info lines. Either way this is an interesting proposition, and I look forward to seeing how this develops at MassDOT. For now, have fun playing with their newly announced real-time data feeds which they announced at the conference today: