Sun 14 Dec 2008
A couple of months ago, a Chicago software developer named Harper Reed (who also happens to be CTO of skinnycorp, purveyors of some of my favorite t-shirts) did some reverse-engineering of the Chicago Transit Authority’s Bus Tracker web applications to figure out how to access the realtime information that they displayed. He documented what he learned in a blog post, so that other developers could use that information to build their own bus tracking applications.
He also set up a proxy site for the API, to add a few functions, to return faster responses, and to reduce the load on the CTA’s servers.
His effort enabled others to create useful things like an iPhone application, a Mac OS X dashboard widget, a text messaging service, and a website that automatically shows you the stop you care about depending on the time of day. All of these things were developed in the space of two months, at no cost to the CTA, and at almost no cost to the riders (the iPhone app costs 99 cents to download—the other things I mentioned are free).
Of course, as Harper himself points out, his API is unofficial and illegitimate, done in one developer’s free time without the involvement or approval of the CTA or Clever Devices (its bus-tracking vendor). These sorts of efforts are generally vulnerable to getting shut down under the auspices of contractual, copyright, or server load concerns.
For instance, here in San Francisco, developers of unofficial SF Muni tracking applications have received legal threats in the past: Steven Peterson (author of the handy Routesy iPhone app) mentioned it here and here, and Robert Dampho of muniriders.net told his story here.
Some of this is motivated by the fear of giving away what you might be able to sell. It’s hard to blame perpetually underfunded transportation agencies for looking for additional sources of income—if they could find someone who’s willing to pay significant sums for access to their realtime information, then cutting off a few software developers (for whom transit applications are often a side project) might seem like a small price to pay.
However, this could be a false economy: consider how much time and money it would take for the CTA to contract out the development of all the applications I mentioned above. By allowing third-party developers to work with their information, a transit agency effectively gains a very motivated external R&D lab for almost no cost or risk. A few forward-looking agencies have come to this conclusion, and have started offering official developer resources: Portland’s TriMet and the Bay Area’s BART have been the most progressive so far.
Until the day that the CTA decides to join them in explicitly offering access to their transit data, however, Harper and other Chicago transit developers are innovating on borrowed time.