City mulls making money off bus-tracking data

The City of Ottawa's decision to pull access to global positioning system data for OC Transpo buses appears to have been in part to capitalize on potential advertising revenue.

The City of Ottawa's decision to pull access to global positioning system data for OC Transpo buses appears to have been in part to capitalize on potential advertising revenue.

OC Transpo had made the GPS data available as part of a pilot project, but suspended the project in January shortly after a developer had created a mobile application which gave real-time updates for people waiting at bus stops.

Jonathan Rudenberg said racked up more than 2,500 hits during the one week it was live.

At the time, OC Transpo general manager Alain Mercier said the GPS data was pulled because it wasn't accurate enough and could provide misinformation to riders using an app like Rudenberg's.

"It was not designed for that," Mercier said.

But it seems money is at least partially behind OC Transpo's decision to withhold the GPS data from application programmers.

In a memo to the city's transportation committee, city staff said the valuable data could be used to generate advertising and sponsorship opportunities and said giving it for free to third-parties could mean sharing potential revenue.

City staff also said the control of real-time bus data matches other cities, such as Chicago.

The Chicago Transit Authority, however, does allow access to its GPS information, among other data.

The CTA has devoted an entire section of its website to helping programmers access data on schedules and general service information, real-time service information and customer alert data. Developers must agree to the CTA's terms of service and include a disclaimer about the accuracy of the information to use the data.

Rudenberg had made the application as part of the Apps4Ottawa competition, which made a host of city data available to programmers interested in creating web-based products that could improve city life.

Marianne Wilkinson, the chair of the tranportation committee, said withholding the GPS information is not in the spirit of open data.

"There's nothing wrong with the city having some and letting the public have access as well because they will be working hand in glove together," said Wilkinson. "I think having this exclusivity is not a good idea."

Rudenberg said he created the app not for money, but to make it easier for him to use transit.

He said OC Transpo should re-consider its mandate and whom it is serving.

"I don't think it is OC Transpo's primary goal to monetize their data," he said.