Taking a Trep on RTA


Photo by flickr user vxla.

Photo by flickr user vxla.

Have you signed Transport for NOLA‘s petition for Open Transit Data?

I had some concerns as a techie when I reviewed the comments on this petition. I agree that Open Data (information that is freely available to everyone to use and republish as they wish without restrictions from copyright, patents or other mechanisms of control) is a public good that we all should demand, but until I actually became a civil servant I never really understood what went in to producing it.  The following is an attempt to give some insight on the structures and opportunities we should be demanding through actions like this petition of our government.

First off, let me recap Transport for NOLA’s Open Transit Data Campaign.

What is Transport for NOLA asking you to do?

  1. Sign the petition – and ask your friends to sign too!
  2. Ask the RTA Board of Commissioners to open their data at the January 24th meeting – 9AM at 2817 Canal Street (one block lakeside of Broad Street)
  3. Learn more about open transit data by checking out this video:

A Case for Open Data in Transit from Streetfilms on Vimeo.

What will Transport for NOLA hold the Regional Transit Authority accountable to?

  1.  Make all bus and streetcar route, schedule, and GPS data freely available and accessible online.  Create either a software developer page on the RTA’s site or provide a URL from a third party that is authorized to host the feed, like the GTFS Data Exchange.
  2. Develop a standard license for transit data.  A license agreement, or terms of use, will outline how the data can be used by developers while ensuring that developers meet basic terms of use as defined by the RTA.  Innovation works best when the rules are simple and clear.
  3. Provide regular updates to keep transit data accurate.  The best way to make sure that developers only use accurate data is to provide official data in an accessible, up-to-date form.  A simple RSS feed can alert developers when changes have been made to RTA’s schedule data so they can update their applications and ensure they are accurate.

These asks seem very similar to the guidelines OpenPlans published for New York.

Government as a Platform

If you watch the video above, Tim O’Reilly speaks on his ideas about how government can focus their resources: not by allocating them towards direct service delivery, but by maintaining a platform for other parties to drive value from opportunities created.

A triumphant example of this is the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956. The interstate highway system was “a key investment in facilities that had a huge economic and social multiplier effect.” Some specific opportunities I am thankful for are road trips, two day parcel shipping, drive-thrus, Easy Rider, Transformers, roadside assistance, and people who moved to New Orleans from a small town.

These things I take for granted weren’t developed and provided for by the federal government. They were built by American businesses and their customers upon the platform of an interstate highway. Some other examples of government as a platform are GPS, the National Weather Service, and the Internet.


Who is RTA? The New Orleans Regional Transit Authority is governed by the RTA Board of Commissioners. Eight publicly appointed representatives make up the board of commissioners. Five representatives are appointed by the Mayor of New Orleans, and three representatives are appointed by the President of Jefferson Parish.

This currently includes Barbara MajorEarline RothConnie GoodlySalvador LongoriaFlozell Daniels, Jr.Charlotte BurnellMark Spears, and Sharon Wegner. Transport for NOLA would like you to attend the upcoming public board meeting.

What would you say to the board? I considered looking at the minutes of the last meeting, but then soon realized it would be a waste of my time. I believe that having Open Transport Data would allow for many economic, social justice, convenience, and quality of life improvements.

How do I tell that to the board members in an effective way through the medium of public meeting? Unfortunately I don’t have an answer, and I couldn’t find one. I hope someone will put together some talking points.

Addressing Challenges

Recently Georgia Tech published a great paper on Open Transit Data. I am mainly interested in the barriers to implementation. As entrepreneurs we are looking for problems to solve. Some of the barriers mentioned in this paper are constrained agency resources, legal concerns, data integrity, and developer relationships.

I’d like to see the Open Transit Data conversation begun by Transport for NOLA turn to: Does RTA leadership have the network to support the right strategic choices when considering trade offs created by constrained resources in implementing or updating systems? What is the legal climate for transit information errors and omissions? How much of the data standard requires human reporting, and how far away is the management software from automating feeds? Is there a space and resources to create relationships with developers?

It was difficult for me to sign the petition because there was so little information available to help me understand what I was demanding. I’d like to see some good engagement here and really give this campaign a decent chance. Please comment below.

Civic Startups

So what will addressing the challenges afford us? Firstly I hope we can define a local developer community that could use Open Data. Since we can’t say there are 50 developers who are members of our Open Data interest group, RTA won’t be able to justify app contests, licensing agreements for branding, or making commitments to supporting a developer community.

This process of opening data sets up precedents toward reforming procurement in our government institutions. One would assume, as with most contracting in our governments, that a single contract controls the management information systems used in transit or other services for that matter. Requirements of efficiency and cost savings policies would most likely make the system integrated and proprietary in hardware, software, support, and implementation.

This type of “monolithic procurement” results in a closed architecture with few if any entry points for connecting services. If a strategic commitment is made towards Open Data, we will find that an Open Architecture Procurement policy will afford a much more responsive institution which will be better equipped to meet the changing demands of our fast changing society.

It is time for entrepreneurship and technology to revolutionize our government institutions now that so many service industries are being disrupted by innovations of software: classifieds by Craigslist, music distribution by Apple, publishing by Amazon, recruiting by LinkedIn, hotel by Airbnb, movie rentals by Netflix, and news by Twitter. Nick Grossman asks “what is ripe for disruption in the civic space?” Politics? Protest? Community? Transportation?

Nick makes a case for Civic Startups. He points to four trends happening in government: spending more and getting less, the changing of the guard (drastic change in ages of management as Baby Boomers retire), the rise of the Civic Hacker (a few have stepped up since institutions failed them), and Government as a Platform (such as the petition above promotes).

Nick also defines four models. First is to be the platform builder. These companies work directly with government. They disrupt the market by providing Open Source or cloud products. Challenges with building the platform is the monolithic procurement I mentioned earlier. Government contracts are very long in duration and there is a tendency to try to make the contracting process efficient and not the received services. Where many of us in the region can take innovate is to build on the platform.

We can disrupt through design, simplicity, and being able to capture utilization analytics. This reminds me of Plebu.com. Nick defines a third model to be “playing outside the lines.” Using agility, design, and user centered approaches to disrupt, these startups have a challenge of finding the right business model. This reminds me of Neighborland.  This model to scale is what Nick considers as the “Enterprise End-Run.” An independent service that is so ubiquitous it is demanded of governments to be integrated. The example here is SeeClickFix. This model employs the end user as a sales force and as a result creates a tension between user focus and enterprise focus.

So where would one turn to to get resources on starting a civic startup? We have a great accelerator community in the region, but specifically for civic startups, Code for America will be starting an accelerator of their own.  They are currently looking for a director.

Speaking of Code for America, the 2012 New Orleans fellows will be here in February. You’re invited to meet them at the first Net2NO of 2012!

Please take action by signing the above petition, engaging in a public conversation to address our challenges, reaching out to others to flesh out ideas on a civic startup, or just coming out to support our vibrant tech community at Net2NO.