OneBusAway is an integrated, open-source suite of software components that provides real-time and schedule information for public transit, supported by a nonprofit organization that is responsive to the needs of transit agencies and the riders. It is also an important alternative to the surveillance capitalism business model for providing such information. In this post, I will argue that King County Metro, Sound Transit, and other regional agencies should embrace it more fully, in particular by giving an official status to the OneBusAway apps rather than regarding them as just one of many “third-party” apps.
Regarding surveillance capitalism: a large portion of the software side of the global information technology infrastructure, including web search, email, social media, and much more, is often provided free to the end users, although the corporations that provide this, for example Google and Facebook, are often enormously profitable. The business model for this involves customized advertising and sometimes behavior manipulation, powered by intensive gathering and cross-correlation of detailed personal information. These companies provide some great products and services that are free to the end users. But surveillance capitalism has a dark side as well, with negative impacts for privacy, autonomy, human dignity, and democracy. The term comes from Shoshana Zuboff – please see her recent book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power, or a recent interview.
Accurate and convenient schedule and real-time transit information, particularly when available to riders on apps on mobile devices, is an important part of making transit satisfying and easy to use. Much of this information is provided via a surveillance capitalism business model, for example via Google maps. Another source of information is via apps provided by venture-capital funded startups, for example Transit App or Moovit – it seems safe to assume that these, too, have an eventual goal of participating in the surveillance capitalism business model. (Venture capitalists seem unlikely to invest tens of millions of dollars in for-profit corporations just because they want the world to have better transit information.) OneBusAway provides an important nonprofit alternative.
Taking on surveillance capitalism in its full, global reach is a daunting, although important, undertaking (see for example this paper). However, the situation is simpler for transit information: agencies can provide a “public option” for accessing their information. Riders who want to use information provided via surveillance capitalism remain free to do so; but there is an alternative for those who don’t. And unlike health care, this public option can be provided at a relatively low cost and with minimal political drama. There are also strong benefits to the transit agencies, by giving them control over at least one end-to-end way for making their schedule and real-time information available that can be responsive to local needs, including issues of equity and social justice.
OneBusAway originated at the University of Washington – itself a public agency – as the PhD dissertation projects of Brian Ferris and Kari Watkins in Computer Science & Engineering and Civil & Environmental Engineering. It continues to be widely used in Puget Sound, and has also expanded to serve Rogue Valley, Oregon; San Diego, California; Spokane, Washington; and Tampa Bay, Florida, with branded versions available in Buenos Aires, Argentina; New York City; Poznań, Środa Wielkopolska and Kórnik, Poland; Washington DC; and York, Canada. This year, the project took the major step of forming a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, the Open Transit Software Foundation, as a long-term home for OneBusAway as well as potentially other open source transit systems.
Within this region, Sound Transit administers the OneBusAway server that aggregates schedule and real-time information from King County Metro and 10 other regional agencies, and provides the data used by the OneBusAway apps, website, and many of the other apps as well. There is much more that should be done to improve real-time accuracy, to support carefully targeted alerts (including cancellations, stop closures, etc.), and other things – but administratively, the server side of the transit information ecosystem is being handled appropriately. It’s a different story on the app side. Sound Transit has no officially supported apps, and King County Metro has its own proprietary apps, which receive relatively little use despite their official status. Meanwhile, the OneBusAway iPhone and Android apps are basically supported by one volunteer each, despite being widely used. I suggest that Sound Transit, Metro, and other agencies adopt the OneBusAway apps as their official ones, and that Metro drop its current ones. A recent report from the King County Auditor’s Office in fact recommended that Metro drop its current apps – but then fell short by simply lumping OneBusAway with for-profit third-party apps. (I was interviewed by the auditors while they were preparing their report, and after it was released did have a cordial exchange of emails with them on this point.)
With official support and funding for app maintenance and development, there is much more that could be done, for example: develop tutorial and outreach materials; re-enable trip planning on Android using open source geocoding and add trip planning support on the iPhone; add app support for targeted alerts, including trip cancellation information; have an accessibility consultant on retainer to help ensure good accessibility for blind and low vision riders, with strong outreach to those communities; and much more. And because OneBusAway is open source, these benefits would flow to other agencies using the software, and those agencies in turn could help support the applications as well.
About the author: Alan Borning is Professor Emeritus in the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering at the University of Washington. I was the co-advisor for Brian Ferris and worked closely with Kari Watkins as well as they wrote their dissertations. I am currently a member of the Board of Directors of the Open Transit Software Foundation. However, all opinions in this op-ed are my own, and are not endorsed by OTSF or any other organization, and I am responsible for any errors or omissions.