Sydney real-time bus app data still on hold
NSW buses as they appeared on a Google Map before the government stopped the real-time data feed.
The prospect of mobile phone apps showing the real-time movement of buses around Sydney's roads remains some way off, more than a year after independent developers came up with apps that could easily do the job.
After years of abortive efforts, Sydney finally joined the likes of Canberra and Adelaide among 400 cities this week when the state government and Google announced that public transport information would now feature on Google Maps.
People have tried to get hold of that data from the relevant authority in NSW for five years.Nicholas Gruen, former chairman of the federal government's Web 2.0 taskforce
But the information that is now available remains static timetable data, updated once a week.
And while the NSW government tracks the real-time movement of buses and ferries throughout the city, it continues to resist releasing that real-time data to third parties such as Google or other developers.
“Transport for NSW has a stated goal to provide real time information to the customer to make travelling on public transport a more seamless experience," a spokesman said this week.
"The Customer Experience Division of Transport for NSW is currently working on how real time data on bus movements can be released in a format that will enable developers to create apps that improve the experience for the customer," the spokesman said.
"Transport for NSW must be confident that the real time data is the right quality and in the correct format to ensure it is consistent, easy to use and ultimately benefits our customers.”
This was a similar response to one just over a year ago after Fairfax Media reported on a real-time bus app built by Ben Hosken over two days during an open data session provided by the government.
Mr Hosken's app received more than 200,000 views in the two weeks it was live, before the government dropped the feed of GPS data tracking the movements of Sydney's buses.
A spokesman for Transport NSW said at the time the department was committed to "providing data to developers".
"The system is not yet able to provide a reliable or sustainable feed," the spokesman said.
This was also a similar response given to another potential developer, Marcus Schappi, a year before that. In June 2010 Mr Schappi inquired of Data NSW about receiving a feed of real-time bus data.
He was told: "This requires some investment, and is likely to occur next year or the year after. There is a possibility that data may be charged for to cover costs, but this has not been decided."
At a press conference announcing the tie-up with Google this week, the Transport Minister, Gladys Berejiklian, said her department had made progress in organising transport data into a format that could be released in real-time.
"At the moment we will be sending weekly updates, but as the systems become more proficient we can provide more updates and eventually get to real time," the minister said of the agreement with Google.
"So that's definitely on the horizon, we are not just going to stop here. That's obviously our aim, to get to a stage where you can have that real time."
But Ms Berejiklian also said that developers would continue to need to sign agreements with the state government before accessing streams of timetable information.
"That's a formal relationship, and obviously if we do embark on that in the future we want to make sure the organisation we are dealing with is going to respect the integrity of the data we are providing them and is going to make sure that they are used in a good way that's going to help people," she said.
The requirement to sign agreements could also be a potential concern for developers.
Nicholas Gruen, the former chairman of the federal government's Web 2.0 taskforce, set up to derive new ways for governments to use technology to share and engage with the wider population, praised Ms Berejiklian and her department for opening up transport data to Google.
"People have tried to get hold of that data from the relevant authority in NSW for five years," Dr Gruen said.
"But on the negative side, there's still evidence that the bureaucrats are weighing down the minister. There are over 400 cities in the world that provide that sort of data to Google and others, and many of them do it on an open basis."
This meant, Dr Gruen said, lowering hurdles placed in front of anyone considering using the government's transport data. "This sort of thing works by lowering transaction costs," he said. "There is now an economy of zero transaction costs emerging and it is an astonishing thing."
The key here was making it as easy as possible for the developer's computer to tap into a stream of information provided by the government without, if possible, stopping to ask permission.
"Permissions matter. You need to be able to automate permissions because if you don't do that you can't get my machines to talk to your machines," Dr Gruen said.
For their part, Ms Berejiklian and her department say the "permissions" necessary to access streams of timetable information by developers are not onerous.
In order to allow Google access to timetable information, Transport for NSW spent months converting the information from what is known as a TransXChange format to the GTFS (General Transit Feed Specification) preferred by the web giant.
Google is the only firm accessing Transport for NSW's timetable data in the GTFS format, though bureaucrats believe the new standard will make it easier for developers to tap into the information.
More than 100 subscribers are currently tapped into timetable information using the TransXChange standard.