I think that sometimes when technologists make the case for open standards it can seem like a purely theoretical exercise. For most people the downsides to publishing a document as, say, an MS Word file aren't readily apparent. Every computer they've used has had a Windows license built into its price. They've never had a reason to learn how to manipulate text programmatically. Everyone else with whom they exchange files has Word, and the program is pretty well-designed for most office work use cases*. The dire warnings issued by developers just don't seem plausible.
So it's worth taking a second to note an example of these problems happening in a different arena. Here in DC our primary transit agency, WMATA, issues an RFID card called the SmarTrip which works with nearly all of the area's various transit systems. It's quite handy: you don't have to take it out of your wallet to use it, the balance is supposedly loss- and theft-proof, and it automates things like bus transfers.
Unfortunately, this morning brought news that the SmarTrip has to be replaced. Why? Well, the vendor that our transit planners bought it from
has gone out of business is ceasing to support the card, and they're pulling SmarTrip into oblivion with them is ceasing to support SmarTrip, and no one else can take their place: the card incorporates proprietary technology, so it's impossible to find a new supplier. WMATA has a stockpile of cards that'll last about two years, but after that it'll have to start using a new solution.
This may admittedly be of limited interest to those outside the DC area, but it's extremely interesting to me, so I'm afraid you'll just have to humor me for a paragraph or two. WMATA, our regional transit agency, has just launched a developer portal and API, and they've done a really nice job of it. People seem to love transit data -- after crime data it seems to be the municipal information people get most excited about (and I'd argue that it's much, much more useful than crime data) -- and I'm no exception. Playing with this stuff is a bit of a hobby of mine, and I've been following WMATA's gradual move toward openness for years. This is a big step forward for both the agency and its customers.
Bus data is still forthcoming, and I suspect that's where the real possibilities lie: the rail system is pretty easy to use; tech can pay bigger dividends when applied to the relative mysteries of the bus. Still, it's already clear that WMATA has made some smart decisions about implementation, defined reasonable terms of service, and generally seems to be moving in the right direction. When the API is considered alongside the already-released GTFS dataset, Metro's offerings match up fairly well (though not perfectly) with the ten open data principles that Sunlight has just published.
Now to see if I can't get a Graphserver instance running...Continue reading