Transit Score Shows the Power of Open Government Data

Seattle based Front Seat software launched a new service to rank public transit for an area. The service almost perfectly illustrates the value of open government data. The "Transit Score" offers a handy location score that's compelling because transportation is a major factor in picking an affordable place to live.

Transit Score is integrated into Front Seat's Walk Score website and is available to developers through the Public Transit API. The online realty service announced that it had integrated Transit Score into its listing website shortly after launch. The service covers 40 urban cities and continues the recent trend in transit agencies opening their data to developers. Let's examine how each player benefits from arrangement.

Front Seat's website states that it only works on projects that fit its values. It focuses on sustainability, local communities, equal opportunity, and media and government transparency. In the case of Transit Score they are consuming transit data from local governments provided though the GTFS data exchange. GTFS, which stands for General Transit Feed Standard, was originally created by Google (in fact, as O'Reilly Radar notes, the G used to stand for Google).

Front Seat can build a compelling and useful transit API because the standard is open and multiple cities are available. It creates value for it's Public Transit API customers by bridging the gaps between those different organizations in a way that government would find almost impossible to duplicate. Front Seat also creates value for the communities that have contributed data because they can access Transit Score through it's website for free. The chief benefit for Front Seat is making a living while contributing to things it feels good about.

Local transit authorities and government officials benefit because they have fostered a low cost solution on top of data they need to produce anyway. Citizens in their communities can make smarter and more sustainable choices about where to live. Governments have a responsibility to educate people about transit options and increase ridership. They can show that open data has helped them meet those goals.

Companies like ZipReality can offer greater value directly to their customers by integrating the Public Transit API. They have a stronger brand as a green brokerage that can help customers save money on transportation. The cost of the service is shared with other subscribers making it cheaper as more sign on.

Citizens are happy because they get the benefit of their tax dollars continuing to work well beyond the original data and services. They also can use the Transit Score service to make better choices in a difficult economy. Everyone wants to get to work faster.

Does this scenario seem too rosy? There are 698 transit organizations that do not engage developers, use the GTFS standards, or offer open data at all. Transit Score is successful because it focuses on transit organizations that want developers building applications on their data. The benefits to contributing communities seem pretty clear. If you work at one of those 698 organizations without public data I would like to understand what the barriers are. Please contribute to this story by sharing your experience in comments.

Be sure to read the next News Services article: Data Journalism: the View from Europe


Comments (10)

@Marshall thank you M. I agree with you that the value is very difficult for a company to gage. Especially as open data is still in it's infancy.

[...] page. If the data represents a potential opportunity for recovering costs, some officials might be reluctant to make it easier for developers to use [...]

Good post Justin, glad to read about this stuff. I think Kevin is right - geeky types are blown away by the possibilities but the tangible incentive for companies to spend time on this remains too unclear. Hopefully examples like this will help!

@Kevin You raise an good point about the ability of public to consume and make use of raw government data. In this case Front Seat has taken bulk transit info and turned it into an API for developers and an easy to navigate web site for the public. As a citizen you can start to ask questions about the levels of transit service for your area and attempt to raise the issue with transit officials.

I hear your concern about getting officials to listen and make use of the analysis. I think better transparency could help in time.


It would be great to see more open government data, but the incentives for people to analyze it are lacking. It would help if governments could find a way to signal that they are going to be fact-based about some decision which data can help with.

It's not enough just to "publish the data". Government needs to provide some specific use cases that they would be willing to implement through an SDLC-like process if somebody only came up with the analysis. e.g. "we will spend up to $100 million to add public transit stops to wherever they will offer the most improvement to quality of life. We anticipate that this will fund between 3-5 stops. Here's the data, do the analysis and make your case to our decision makers for what our priorities should be."


[...] to research seems to show that ideas that are not locked down end up being more suc­cess­ful. Open gov­ern­ment data allows for more work to be done vol­un­tar­ily and in a less expen­sive fash­ion that closed [...]

[...] page. If the data represents a potential opportunity for recovering costs, some officials might be reluctant to make it easier for developers to use [...]

[...] some ways Sunlight Labs is mirroring successful projects like Transit Score by creating services that no government entity could easily offer. Cross government data services [...]