MTA Open Transit Data Summit

Tuesday, August 25, 2009 @ 6:00 pm
The Open Planning Project
148 Lafayette St
New York, NY 10013
Link to Meet Up Present at the meeting were people from all over the city that work in social justice technology support, open government initiatives, and MTA reporter Michael Grynbaum from the NY Times. The question that I arrived with was "Is this about opening the data for political reasons?" I feared that it was an opportunistic, single-issue group of technologists. Many people supported my push to keep the discussion about open data as a political principle for the state. Others wanted to make sure that corporations had access to data in order to innovate consumer-relevant solutions to issues of transit. "Does collaborating with the city of New York and the MTA reinforce private and/or non-profit liaisons to the data?" This question was also critical for me, because it addresses a larger question of "what is open?" It's not enough that the MTA make its data open to corporate applicants or provides licenses to non-profit groups, when really it should be focusing on how it can make this data open and accessible directly to people. The topic of open data government reform is quite a popular issue at the moment, and so let us not be satisfied with creating complex, bureaucratic structures for disseminating information to the public. Often, too, the question of "what is open?" is relevant with regards to the data itself. The MTA distributes data freely to licensees on CDROM. Even Google's transit data for New York City is about 6 months old because they, too, receive their updates via this medium. Say, for example, that the data is encoded or displayed with proprietary or private software? Is it open? Recipients of the data would then have to parse it, or have access to these tools in order to find the data useful. Discussing Free and Open Source Software can sometimes go badly in these half-techie-half-activist circles. My hard-lined view of FOSS all the time, everywhere, is seen as purist/elitist, when actually my approach is simply to create dialogue in these situations about how to politicize ourselves, how to politically opportunize in well-timed and relevant discussions with state departments concerning technology. I think the Open Data, Open Government movement is ripe for FOSS activists to ensure that "Open" becomes well-defined with universal and free access in mind. in cases where the MTA is not releasing data, "what is their justification for staying closed?" Often, the red-herring answer is "security purposes". What is their ulterior motive, then? Making a profit from such data would be illegal, but in the days of corporate investment and contracting, perhaps the MTA is hoping to make some deals. What else could be the reason? There were a few people at the summit that had direct conversations with MTA bureaucrats in the course of their developing a web or mobile application. How did the MTA approach these developers about putting up disclaimers on their sites about accuracy, or ask them to simply take down their apps? Is the Electronic Frontier Foundation involved? And who is the audience for these tools, iPhone users or the sector of the public that uses transit the most (folks that cannot afford iPhones)?

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