July 31, 2012 By Noelle Knell
Much has been written about the upcoming launch of Apple’s latest mobile operating system, iOS 6, with a release expected in the next couple of months. But Apple devotees know not to look for Google Maps when checking out their new iDevice — Google Maps won’t be offered on the new operating system.
As previously reported in Government Technology, Apple will replace Google Maps with its own mapping platform. Apple’s mapping solutions will not, however, include public transit data that Google incorporates into its maps — the result of several years of working directly with public-sector transit agencies.
Third-party developers looking to help fill this public transit gap will have to rely on data sets published by local jurisdictions. While great strides have been made in the open data movement over the past several years, many large urban areas still don’t seem ready, or willing, to publish their transit data.
Kevin Webb, co-director of transportation at nonprofit software developer OpenPlans, explains that many transit officials feel that providing their route information to Google for use in its mapping applications means they’ve fulfilled their open data obligations.
“They feel like that's open enough,” Webb explained. But the rift between Apple and Google reveals how that thinking falls short. “The consequence of that [sharing data only with Google] is that now you've lost your iPhone user base because you didn't share your data with more people.”
Publishing transit data online allows enterprising programmers to create free apps to serve the public. Transit data served up by major urban centers across the country is indeed proving to be valuable fodder for civic-minded developers.
According to Webb, transportation agencies seem nervous about releasing their data openly given a perceived lack of ability to manage how the information is used. Transportation agencies are accustomed to strict controls over how they communicate with their ridership. While Webb and others agree that truly open data is a goal worth striving for, he finds these public-sector concerns understandable.
"There's more we could be doing in the technology community to help address some of these concerns head on and make it more comfortable for people to participate," Webb added.
OpenTripPlanner Mobile is an open source app developed by OpenPlans to help fill the public transportation mapping void in Apple’s new iOS. In the works for the past three years, the app boasts coverage for a majority of North American transit systems.
In urban areas where new transit modes such as car-sharing and bike-sharing are emerging, the app can incorporate multiple transportation options in a single trip for the quickest route from point A to point B. This multi-modal functionality is not available in the Google mapping app.
For now, the app’s coverage map features most major urban centers. But again, OpenPlans is limited to those transit agencies that publish their info online in standard formats.
The company is eyeing an eventual release of the app for the Android operating system as well, but is accelerating its iPhone development given the impending release of iOS 6.
If this kind of open source app development is an idea you can get behind, a visit to the fundraising website Kickstarter may be in order. In a first of its kind experiment for the company, OpenPlans is making its pitch for development support on the popular crowdsourcing site.
And so far, the risk is paying off. Webb and his team are encouraged by the support they’ve received to date via their Kickstarter page – 300 backers and financial contributions of more than $10,000, with more than 2 weeks to go in its funding cycle.
Webb explains that Kickstarter was appealing both for its fundraising potential and the platform it presents to communicate the objectives behind the project.
“Fundamental to our work is creating community around ideas,” he said, “and it [Kickstarter] seemed like a natural fit both from a funding perspective as well as from a community-building perspective.
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