Imagine standing on a cold Boston street, waiting for an MBTA bus and wondering if you have time to grab a coffee before getting aboard. Suddenly, you notice a sign inside a nearby cafe flashing the words, "Bus will arrive in 13 minutes. Come in for breakfast!" So you hustle across the street, safe in the knowledge that your bus is still miles away.
Or maybe you pull out a smart phone and open up an application that shows you on a map exactly where your bus is located, and how long it will take to arrive.
Or maybe you simply look at your wristwatch to find out where the bus is.
Such Tom Swiftian products, some of which have already been developed, were the topic of a two-day long "Hackathon" that brought local software developers and state transportation officials to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on Friday and Saturday. At the event, hosted by The Center for Future Civic Media at MIT, the developers showed off products that utilize new transit data released by the state and brainstormed about even more ways to use it.
The ultimate goal of the meeting, said Joshua K. Robin, manager of performance and reporting at the Department of Transportation, was to make transit information more available to the public.
“We noticed that it was very easy to find weather and traffic reports, but much harder to find information about transit,” Robin said.
About 20 people were attending the conference in a glass-walled MIT meeting room on Saturday afternoon.
The MBTA last year released transit scheduling information to developers. Then they took it to another level, and, in November, released real-time information on where buses were traveling on five routes in the city. Within hours of the real-time data's release, a developer integrated it with Google Maps and made an application that shows customers the current locations of the buses on their routes. In the days and weeks that followed, several more products were released.
Now, the T itself makes information on the locations of the buses on those five routes available on the T-Tracker link on its website.
“The main point of the trial release [of data] was to begin to show the type of things that are possible do with this information,” Robin said. He noted that a watch with a small screen displaying transit information could be produced in the near future. “If you can put this information on a watch, you can put it anywhere," he said.
"The information cost the MBTA virtually nothing and can really help commuters," Robin said.
Developers will also have a chance to profit from the applications they create, he said. Brian Leonard, an independent developer who attended the Hackathon, said he has sold "thousands” of his “to a T” iPhone applications – an interactive map that shows schedule information for MBTA buses and trains – at $2.99 a piece.
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