Apple, Public Transportation and iOS6

In Apple’s forthcoming operating system for the iPhone, iOS6, will replace the Google provided maps application with Apple’s own maps application built on top of other commercial services like Yelp and TomTom. When the inevitable time comes for you to upgrade your iPhone, you’ll find yourself with an App that looks and behaves similarly to the Maps app you’ve grown to rely upon – but it’ll be stripped of one core piece of functionality you may have grown used to: public transportation directions.

To accomodate for this, Apple is relying on developers to make routing apps on top of the maps app to provide for this. For some, this means a minor inconvienence. What we’ll likely have to do is, upon upgrading, install the Google Maps app, and it will likely provide the right public transit routing directions for us, provided that Apple allows Google to provide this service on the phone.

This may be a big blow to open data and civic interoperability. Your transit data today is powered by data called GTFS – General Transit Feed Specification, and for the usr, it’s likely the biggest open data success story since GPS and Weather. Pioneered by the Portland area’s TriMet transit agency, and Google, GTFS was an optimal solution for open data: an open file specification that provided so much value to the end user that people in urban communities demanded it from their transit agency. By opening up data, a transit agency could let riders plot out destinations using mass transportation in their city in tools they were familiar with like (yes) Google Maps, and Bing.

The other great thing that GTFS did was kneecap the regional monopolies of vendors who built businesses out of keeping transit data “proprietary.” Today, for instance, Nextbus claims that real time bus location data belongs to them, not WMATA – and whether or not you agree with that business stance or not, it’s fairly clear it’s better for the public for that data to be as free and open as possible, rather than locked up inside of the vaults of some proprietary vendor that may or may not go out of business.

The problem, I fear, is that we’ll fracture the transit data community back to where it was a few years ago – where it was dependent on regional feifdoms of data and transit providers. It’s not as though our transit authorities have a particularly good history of working together, or that cities think about interoperability. My wallet has a SmartTrip card in it for DC, a Charlie Card in it for Boston, and a Clipper pass for the Bay area, and though these cards all rely on the very same technology, they’re not at all interoperable. Nothing, from city to city, ever is.

I’m afraid the user may lose out to the locked in, on the approved vendor list, not-competing-in-the-real-world-of-technology vendors will make for us sub-par apps that vary from place to place. From San Francisco and traveling to Atlanta and want to take MARTA? Download the MARTA app to complement your BART app to complement your NYC Subway app to complement your Trimet App.

I wish Apple would embrace GTFS and build some routing and scheduling software on its own. It’s the kind of now critical kind of functionality that really belongs in the default. Alternatively, I’d love to see some kind of open source project emerge – an OpenRoute type of project that really focuses on global interoperability based on GTFS, but I’m afraid the calculations of those kinds of routes on a national scale are computationally too expensive for anyone but a Google or Apple or Microsoft or what not to really build.

For now whole move reeks of Apple being more eager to screw Google than serve the user. We’ll see what happens when iOS6 is out of beta.

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