WMATA vs. the people

WMATA, the D.C.-area public transit authority, has so far declined to provide schedule information for use by third-party providers, including Google Transit. For now, this means WMATA’s own website is the only online source of schedule information.

This is troubling on two accounts:

a) WMATA is largely government-funded, so route information should be treated as an open, public good; and

b) It appears WMATA refuses to open the data for fear of lost advertising revenues from their website, not out of any alleged benefit to riders. (source)

From their FAQ:

We believe that if we are to partner with an outside entity that we should look at what the cost-benefit is to that third party…

During the past year Metro has invested significant money to upgrade its Web site… The site includes Google maps in the neighborhoods in which our rail stations are located.

Interpretation: WMATA finds it acceptable to freely use the high-quality, extensible maps provided by Google but is unwilling to reciprocate by sharing data. Why? Because they’re worried Google will make money from WMATA data and they won’t get a piece of it. (Rumor has it that WMATA is holding out for a revenue-sharing agreement.)

The critical fallacy of this is that falsely treating information as a scarce good in a zero-sum economy harms both the content creator (WMATA) and the target audience (Metro riders).

On the contrary, when public data are opened for actual public use, everyone wins. Riders win by gaining easier access to route information. Google wins by gaining yet another data source. WMATA wins by increasing ridership.

I sent an email to WMATA’s chief administrative officer, Emeka Moneme, to tease out this last point. Excerpt:

If a traveler is planning to walk or drive to her destination, she will never even think to visit the WMATA website. However, there is a very strong chance she will use Google Maps. I assure you, there is no easier way to learn of a mass transit option than to pull up a route on maps.google.com and see “Also available: Public Transit”. Try it yourself on Google maps here: http://bit.ly/5khV

Each and every individual who discovers a WMATA route through such means is a potential new rider. He or she may use that Metro route for years to come. The value of a single new rider vastly outweighs that of a few pageviews on wmata.com.

Surely we can agree that there’s no zero-sum game in that. With open access to information, everyone wins.

(p.s. From the post title: I am not conflating Google with “the people”. Taxpayer-funded data should be open to any entity. In this case, however, providing data to Google is clearly in the people’s interest.)