Open Transit Data

Yesterday was an important day in New Orleans. The Regional Transit Authority is moving to release its schedule, route and real-time GPS data to the public. Yesterday’s meeting of the RTA Board of Commissioners signaled the start of an era when residents will be empowered with information and riding public transit will be more predictable and less stressful. It’s the dawn of Open Data in New Orleans, and both the RTA commissioners and the management staff should be applauded for being local leaders in the effort.

New Orleanians themselves also deserve credit. Here on Neighborland, residents voiced a broad consensus that open transit data is a public priority. In fact, improving transportation is such a common refrain among the Neighborland community that it caught the attention of local transit-advocate Transport for NOLA . As a result, Transport for NOLA partnered with Neighborland to launch a petition campaign asking the RTA to release their data to the public. After only a few weeks almost 300 people signed the pledge.

What happened next is a testament to the power of combining public opinion with personal relationships. The exceptionally charming and talented Executive Director of Transport for NOLA, Rachel Heiligman, and her brain-trust of board members, have worked hard to build a trusting and constructive working relationship with RTA commissioners and management staff.  This didn’t happen overnight–it happened over months and years. In fact, Transport for NOLA had been working with the RTA on Open Data specifically for some time.

The Neighborland-inspired petition endowed TfNOLA’s efforts with the leverage that comes with broad public backing, and as a result Open Data moved way up on the RTA’s long, long list of priorities. At the board meeting, the RTA agreed on language from their legal counsel on license agreements, which will allow third-party developers to access RTA data and add value to it. The management staff also committed to having map and schedule data released by March 4th, with the hopes that they will be able to release GPS data for the city’s bus network by that date as well.

Transport for NOLA Executive Director Rachel Heiligman speaks out for Open Data at the RTA board meeting.

In the meantime, Transport for NOLA will continue to work hard to help the RTA implement best practices. Rachel and her board will facilitate conversations between agency management, stakeholders and transit riders themselves.  We will continue to follow their progress here on Neighborland.

The role of regular New Orleanians has not diminished, but rather grown. In fact, their petition campaign inspired a thoughtful consideration of Open Data in its broader context by Tung Ly, a User Adoption Specialist at the City of New Orleans. As Tung illustrates, there are deeply entrenched procurement practices in our governments that should be re-examined. He raises the possibility that an Open Architecture Procurement policy could result broad improvements to government services.

Now, procurement isn’t as hot of a topic as open tansit data. But the Neighborland community is proof-positive that New Orleanians are interested in making their city a better place, and are eager to learn and discuss new ways to improve our quality of life. In the coming weeks, we will try and bring together local practitioners, national experts, and New Orleanians of all stripes to learn more about how we can create more just and more efficient institutions.

For now though, we celebrate. Though there is hard work ahead, it can be reasonably said that in the near future, the daily routine of tens of thousands of people will be at least a little bit better. Maybe they won’t have to stand in the August heat as long, or maybe they’ll avoid getting soaked. Or maybe they’ll just be able to spend a little more time with their family, friends, and neighbors.