San Francisco misses the NextBus

I live in San Francisco's North Beach neighborhood. If you've visited San Francisco you may know it as the Italian district, where Joe DiMaggio learned to play baseball and where beat writers like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg forged their countercultural vision of the American dream. If you live here, though, you also know that it's the worst place in the city to try to find a parking spot.

In the dog-eat-dog world of San Francisco parking, information is power. My friends Tom and Mary know this. When Tom comes home from work, he calls Mary from the car and Mary goes out to their eighth-floor balcony to scope out the surrounding blocks for parking spaces.

Things may get a bit easier for Tom and Mary over the next few years, though, as the city's transit agency experiments with a new system called SFPark. The city is installing new smart parking meters with wireless sensors that can tell when a parking spot is free. The city wants to share that information with drivers, in theory giving them (or their passengers -- texting while driving is illegal in California!) a way to find a parking spot via their mobile phones.

Brilliant technology, but let's hope that it rolls out a little more smoothly than another cutting-edge system we use here in San Francisco to predict when city buses will arrive. San Francisco is one of several dozen cities that use a system called NextBus.

NextBus is cool, too. It uses a wireless network and GPS to figure out where San Francisco's buses are and, most importantly, how long it will be until the next one shows up at the nearest bus stop.

The problem is that nobody seems to know for sure who owns the data. The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) says it's theirs, but Apple disagrees. Last month Apple killed off a cool little iPhone app called Routsey that used the NextBus data and the iPhone's GPS capabilities to direct people to the nearest bus stop and tell them when the next city bus is due.

Routsey's creator, Steven Peterson, says his app got pulled because a company called NextBus Information Systems (NBIS) told Apple that it had the exclusive right to distribute the NextBus data, which is freely available on the Web. That was good enough for Apple to pull the plug. It's told Routsey and NBIS to work things out. Until then, Routsey is out of the AppStore.

NBIS was looking for a $1 per download licensing fee, but Peterson says that when he really looked into things, it's not clear that NBIS has the right to do this. (He initially charged US$2.99 for the software, but now says he'll give it away, if he can just get Apple to let him publish his app.)

That's because the SFMTA says that it owns of the data and it's totally fine for Routsey to use it. "We're looking at making all of our data as public as possible," SFMTA spokesman Judson True told me.

The saga hasn't played too well in San Francisco, where many are up in arms. San Francisco paid around $10 million to set up the system. Why is a private company now preventing anyone from using this public data in a useful way?

Peterson told me that he feels he's being shaken down. NextBus Information Systems has said it has a legitimate claim to the data, which the SFMTA, in turn, thinks it owns. Apple won't touch the whole mess with a 10-foot pole.

If the SFMTA has some kind of contract that clearly spells out who owns what, it's not producing it. And neither is NBIS.

So in the meantime, riders miss buses, and San Francisco, one hopes, learns a lesson: It's the data, stupid. Keeping it open isn't just good for business, it's a public service.

True says that the situation is "causing us to evaluate our policies and practices." That's a good thing, because governments sit on a huge amount of data, and technologies like the iPhone and Google Maps are giving us new ways of processing and visualizing this information, just so long as legal wrangling doesn't get in the way.

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