Data is everywhere. It now costs less to capture, store and process data than ever before, thanks to better technology and economies of scale. And more than ever, the public expects government to use data to improve its services. Increasingly, government’s problem is not capturing the data, but having sufficient resources to clean and analyze the information in order to address issues, improve performance and make informed decisions.

In particular, public transit not only produces an immense volume of data, but it also stands to benefit from good analysis in the form of streamlined operations and a better rider experience. More than 200 transit agencies worldwide — from Buffalo to Budapest — are well on their way. They are publishing their schedules, fares and station locations to Google’s TransitDataFeed in a common format and for free. Such information is called open data, which is any data that’s publicly shared.

Open data allows anyone to download and use the information for his or her purposes, particularly software developers who can use it to create mobile and Web-based applications. Google, for example, incorporates the information into its Maps application to help riders plan trips and learn about service updates across bus, rail and bike systems. Other third parties have built successful apps on top of open transit data.

Innovations like these allow transit agencies to leverage external expertise and resources, and have also reduced customer service costs and increased ridership levels. In fact, some members of the American Public Transportation Association believe that open data initiatives have catalyzed more innovation throughout the industry than any other factor in the last three decades.

Some cities are using data and the technology that enables it to improve transportation planning. For example, transit agencies in about a dozen cities, including New York City and Portland, Ore., are investing in sophisticated vehicle tracking technology to produce real-time schedules for riders.

In Philadelphia, the City Planning Commission is using text message surveying to capture the opinions of transit riders across the demographic spectrum to determine the usefulness of a proposed rapid transit line into downtown. Philadelphia uses the transit information to inform its comprehensive city plan, but this digital citizen survey mechanism, created by a company called Textizen, is a platform that can be used by any government that wants to solicit feedback or begin a dialog with its citizens.

In 2012, Dubuque, Iowa, collaborated with IBM to run a Smarter Travel pilot study. The pilot used a mobile app and RFIDs to collect anonymous travel data from volunteer transit riders. The city has already used the data to open a new late-night bus line for third-shift workers and college students, and by next year will incorporate data into more route planning decisions.

Amid nationwide public-sector budget cuts, open data is providing a road map for improving public transit and engaging an increasingly tech-savvy citizenry.

Stephen Goldsmith  | 

Stephen Goldsmith is the Daniel Paul Professor of the Practice of Government and the Director of the Innovations in American Government Program at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. He previously served as Deputy Mayor of New York and Mayor of Indianapolis, where he earned a reputation as one of the country's leaders in public-private partnerships, competition and privatization. Stephen was also the chief domestic policy advisor to the George W. Bush campaign in 2000, the Chair of the Corporation for National and Community Service, and the district attorney for Marion County, Indiana from 1979 to 1990. He has written The Power of Social Innovation; Governing by Network: the New Shape of the Public Sector; Putting Faith in Neighborhoods: Making Cities Work through Grassroots Citizenship; The Twenty-First Century City: Resurrecting Urban America, and The Responsive City: Engaging Communities through Data-Smart Governance.