When the Maryland Transit Administration launched its long-promised My MTA Bus Tracker, the release was widely criticized. One observer posted this comment in Baltimore Brew: “This system might win 3rd place in a 5th grade science fair.” Another wrote, “The problem is that it doesn’t work. At all. There is zero real-time information. It’s amazing that something like this was released, even in beta. It’s an embarrassment, even by government standards.”
The bus tracker has several problems — a clunky interface, a web-only version, and inconsistent real-time location information drawn from an old GPS system and radio signals. To its credit, the MTA did the best it could with antiquated technology, and spokesman Rick Binetti defends the agency’s efforts. “The priority for the MTA was to avail this real-time information to the public, our customers, in a usable format, which the MTA believes it did,” he told the Baltimore Sun. “The website we believe is very good, although not an app.”
Some asked why the data was not available in a format that developers could use, like the General Transit Feed Specification. Binetti said that converting the data would cost the MTA $600,000. Enter “civic hacker” Chris Whong and programmers at the Transit App. Whong unscrambled the data, extracted the real-time locations, and posted an API to GitHub. “It was sort of like a little scavenger hunt,” he said.
Then Transit App jumped in and incorporated the MTA data into its mobile app. “We spoke with Chris and he helped show us how we could do it ourselves,” said Jake Sion, Transit App’s director of strategy and development. “This little hack of ours will immediately benefit the 20,000+ Baltimoreans already using Transit App every month. And hopefully, with real-time tracking, we’ll be able to help even more riders,” the Transit App’s blog reports.
The MTA tracker is in beta release for 100 days.
Image source: My MTA Tracker