What open source government data gets you

What makes the difference is the transit system's attitude toward its route data. When you take a proprietary attitude, as MARTA does, riders are left in the dark. An open source attitude, like TriMet's empowers riders.

Early this week I was surprised to wake up and find my wife at the front door.

She likes to leave home early and beat the crowds on Atlanta's transit system, MARTA.

But on Tuesday, her train was stopped near downtown. It sat on the tracks for an hour before she got out, walked to the other track, and decided to work from home.

I spent the rest of the morning trying to find out what happened. MARTA never released the information, and with local news staffs cut to the bone, no one pressed them on it.

Contrast this closed source attitude with what Portland's TriMet system has done.  By simply releasing their schedules to the public as data files they have encouraged third-party developers to create a host of mobile apps for riders.

The apps, in turn, encourage riders, even regular riders, to keep a link to TriMet on their phones, on their person. Then, if there is trouble, TriMet has a channel through which it can quickly report what has happened, what is being done, and how riders can route around it.

What makes the difference is the transit system's attitude toward its route data. When you take a proprietary attitude, as MARTA does, riders are left in the dark. An open source attitude, like TriMet's empowers riders.

This attitude of convenience also leads to more satisfied customers and greater political support. MARTA would love to expand into other counties, and it needs to push through a fare increase. Imagine what an open source attitude toward its data might make in that effort.

And consider what it might do for your local governments as well.

NOTE: A hat tip here to my late friend, Russell Shaw. After leaving Atlanta for Portland in the late 1990s he liked nothing more than regaling me with tales of how much better life was there. I heard his voice in my head as I wrote today, and it made me smile.

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