Open data revolutionizing transit

Open data initiatives can influence the way you make choices, from buying a new home to selecting your jolt of java while waiting for a bus.

The concept of making public data freely accessible to all is allowing businesses in major North American cities to monitor arrival and departure times for customers using the latest GPS technology.

For instance, in Jamaica Plain, a ‘streetcar suburb’ of Boston, a next bus ticker is on display right above the cake display at J.P. Licks Homemade Ice Cream Cafe.

“There’s some people who come in specifically so they can have a cup of coffee and keep an eye on when the next bus is coming,” said supervisor Jeremy Noeth, adding a few main routes run past the shop.

It’s especially popular during the morning rush.

Next bus tickers appeal to people “who either don’t have a smartphone, or aren’t motivated to download a transit application,” said Chris Smith from Portland Transport, who introduced the Transit Appliance — offering real-time estimates on a display screen via Wi-Fi — at the Rail-volution conference in 2010.

It costs about $200.

“The idea is making it very inexpensive and easy,” Smith said.

Ottawa could soon join the club.

The city released its GPS raw data in the last week of March, shortly after launching its My Transit-OC Transpo mobile application for Apple.

Since then, “we’ve seen a number of applications come out,” said Alex Lougheed from Open Data Ottawa.

The list now includes Android, BlackBerry and other websites, such as

Potential open data projects range from creating art to basing academic schedules around transit times, said Lougheed.

The University of Alberta Students’ Union in Edmonton installed a screen predicting arrival times last May, using scheduled data from three integrated transit authorities.

“We’re looking at rolling it out in other locations on campus because of feedback we’ve received,” said digital media coordinator Craig Turner.

“It’s a really beneficial service to the students.”

The Edmonton campus boasts about 37,000 students and the 55-inch screen is located in their transit hub, which includes a light rail station.

Overall, open government activist David Eaves likes what he’s seeing and predicts an even larger impact.

“I believe this is going to become kind of core infrastructure in the real estate industry, at some point,” said Eaves.

“When buying a home, I can figure out where the nearest stop is and what my travel times for different routes are.”

Open Data Ottawa is planning a TransitCamp brainstorming session sometime in the next two months.

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