Public Transit Adds Data Points

Here in DC, WMATA (Washington Metro Area Transit Authority) has started putting up signs at all its bus stops that have a unique stop number on them.

wmataWhat this number symbolizes is a unique ID that riders and WMATA operators can use to point to an exact location and stop.

As you can see from the sign, it’s not exactly intuitive what this number is for, but you can call that number and tell the system the unique stop ID and it would tell you when the next bus is coming.

More useful is that WMATA has put up a mobile version of the same functionality at http://www.wmata.com/mobile/ which allows you to go on your iPhone or whatever and type in the stop # to find out when the next bus is coming.

This app also lets you check when the next trains are coming on the Metro, once you’ve entered the station.

But I think there are some interesting applications more on the bus side, what with WMATA having to add the pictured signs to ALL of its bus stops.  This is no small number; according to Wikipedia, that number is 12,301 total bus stops.

It will take some time for WMATA to get signs on some of the lesser-traveled stops, but I’ve noticed that a lot of the work’s already been done as I travel around town.

That means there are now 12,301 new data points (maybe not new to WMATA’s internal logs, but certainly new to us) that could be used.  Right now, people can’t interact actively with those data points.

But I could imagine that if the data points were all mapped onto Google Maps or OpenStreetMap, then interesting things would begin to emerge, e.g. emergency responders could be told that there’s an injured person at that location.

This might be done by turning the bus stops into communication posts:  the sign itself could be connected to a WiMAX network and thus displays the next-bus time without you having to look it up.  But it could also allow for emergency requests, or you could touch your phone or an RFID-enabled device to it to get more information on whatever was needed; this information would be primarily localized, like where the nearest convenience or grocery store was, etc.  This would make up for a lot of the shortcomings that still exist in being able to use the GPS/triangulation on your phone but still not having any context on your map that’s meaningful beyond what cross-streets you’re at.

New York supposedly is about to try out its own version of having next-bus displays at bus stops, according to the NY Times.  It’s not entirely clear to me what their technology is although they claim it is some sort of “mesh network technology” which to me sounds like it’d be fraught with errors and lost coverage.

The new data points could be used in different applications:  you could check in to FourSquare from them as you travel around town, playing its social game.  If WMATA played ball and opened up the data, you could calculate total hits on a station by a bus over a year.  Even more interesting would be if you could see how many people were on each bus, to see how congested things are over time (I can already see privacy zealots complaining about that).  How about figuring out overall transit times for Metro users?

What else could we do with this stuff?