King County, Wash.'s Open Data Turned Into Real-Time Bus Tracking App

Part of open data initiative, Seattle-based county to make hundreds of data sets available for citizens, innovators to create apps.

by / July 7, 2010

Brian Ferris doesn't drive. He lives in one of the rainier cities on the West Coast and uses public transportation to get around. And he's not the only one.

A grad student at the University of Washington in Seattle, Ferris saw the need for better public transit information. So in his spare time, he wrote code that's now used for OneBusAway -- an open source application that aggregates bus data in real time, allowing users to view whether their ride is on time, early or late.

"Now you know: 'Am I going to be here five minutes, 30 minutes, or do I go do something else?'" the OneBusAway creator said. And especially with weather being such a factor in people's daily lives, knowing when the bus will arrive is a huge asset, Ferris said.

King County IT officials hope others will emulate Ferris' efforts in the coming months as they plan to make hundreds of data sets available that can be made into useful apps. "We're looking to make raw data available to citizens and innovators in the area so they can develop apps that frankly, we don't have the money to develop ourselves," said King County Deputy Director of IT Enterprise Business Solutions Trever Esko.

Esko is spearheading the county's open data initiative, which will include a website that displays its open data sets. Once available in raw form, people can play with the information as they please, and some already have app ideas, Esko said.

At a public forum held in early June, attendees were asked to brainstorm what they'd like to see done with the county's public information. One idea spawned was the ability to take restaurant health inspections and mesh it with mapped crime data and mapped parking lot information, Esko said. "And create an app that tells a citizen, 'Here's how I get to a restaurant, here's how I park, but here's the crime statistics in the neighborhood,'" he said.

Another open forum will be held in August, during which citizens will receive lists of the county's data sets, which will include health-care statistics, crime statistics and restaurant health information, Esko said.

"Citizens can see it online, download it, collaborate, ask questions, or maybe even other citizens working with the data can answer questions for them," Esko said.

For now, the OneBusAway app -- available in multiple operating systems, including the iPhone and Android -- is the first app to be created from the county's open data. To be fair, the public transportation data set is the only one available online.

But its popularity has already been measured. The iPhone app has been downloaded 40,000 times, OneBusAway is used by 25,000 unique users a week and Ferris has surveyed how it's changed transportation behavior as part of his grad study work.

"People are more satisfied with public transit, spend less time waiting, take transit more frequently and feel safer at bus stops," he said. "People actually reported walking more."


Karen Wilkinson

Karen is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.

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