Blais to push Transpo for open data

  • In The News
Ottawa Citizen

Written by David Reevely in the Ottawa Citizen

Councillor to move motion to force bus company to make information public

OC Transpo should open its bus-location data to outside programmers the same day it launches its own application to tell riders when their buses are due, says Councillor Stephen Blais, and he intends to present a motion to the city’s transit commission at its next meeting on Thursday to force the company to do it.

OC Transpo general manager Alain Mercier told commissioners this week that the company is a couple of weeks away from having all of its buses kitted out with top-ofthe-line GPS technology that will give updates every 30 seconds on where its buses are. And, he said, it has a program written for Apple’s mobile devices like the iPhone that will present that information to riders so they will know almost exactly when their buses will arrive at a particular stop. It is in late testing, with versions for Android phones and perhaps BlackBerrys to come later.

Mercier had previously promised that the same data would be opened to outsiders who want to work with it themselves, either to write alternatives to OC Transpo’s own applications (or “apps”) or to do entirely different things, such as analyse it to find the spots in OC Transpo’s network where buses are routinely delayed. But at a commission meeting last week, he said the company wants to find out what the prospects are for selling advertisements on an OC Transpo app and let the commission decide whether to destroy that revenue source forever by giving the information out free.

The company is about to seek an ad agency that will test the marketplace and suggest what all of OC Transpo’s “bundled” advertising opportunities might be worth, including ads on an OC Transpo app. Mercier suggested they might have an idea of the app’s value by midsummer. Shelter and bus advertising is worth about $3 million a year now and the company hopes to add as much as $1.3 million to that with “dynamic messaging” ads inside transit stations and other places. What ads on a smartphone app might be worth is a big question mark, though.

The Transpo general manager got a rough response from several commissioners, including councillors Tim Tierney and Marianne Wilkinson, both of whom objected to Mercier’s going back on his previous word.

Chairwoman Diane Deans was more circumspect, saying the commission would take a vote once commissioners know how much money they might be talking about.

Friday, Blais firmly planted himself with Tierney and Wilkinson.

“OC Transpo committed to doing it,” Blais said simply. “The City of Ottawa has an open-data policy and I believe the marketplace will dictate which apps are successful, if any.”

He understands there are technical challenges with getting the data into shape. A technology manager with OC Transpo, Robert Delage, told the commission that there are blind spots in the system, such as the bus tunnel at St. Laurent mall, where the GPS technology doesn’t work and the next-stop system has to be taught to make educated guesses.

Overpasses where multiple routes cross and the GPS system doesn’t automatically know which road a bus is on also need to be dealt with. Blais said fine, the world can wait until OC Transpo has those problems sorted out. But when they are and the company is ready with its own first app, the raw data can be shared.

“If it’s available for their app, it should be available for everyone,” he said.

At Wednesday’s meeting, Mercier said he would have to consult with other departments in the city to see how quickly the information could be made public if the commission ordered it, though he said he expected it could be done within six months. On Friday, however, the city said it might take two months to “develop the process, protocols and resources required for its release.”

Programmers who worked with an earlier version of the data, which was made open briefly in 2010 and 2011, say that as far as the technology goes it’s as simple as putting a copy of some big text files on a publicly accessible server and could be done virtually overnight, though the city would likely prefer to monitor access and get users to agree to protect the city from liability if anything went wrong.