Open data is making transit better, one app at a time

John Canfield
John Canfield’s start-up, Nimbler, just launched its fourth transit app.

John Canfield is the Founder of Nimbler and the VP of Risk Management at WePay. John previously worked at eBay, Zip2 and Creative Labs. John has a masters degree in electrical engineering from MIT and an MBA from Stanford.

I have been in the high-tech industry my whole career, working in start-ups and large tech companies. Over the years, the hot areas of innovation have shifted from the computers themselves, to packaged software, to the Internet, to mobile devices.

But I never heard people talking about transportation being a hot area of innovation until this last year.

Millennials are leading us away from the car-dominated America of past generations. They are looking for options. Start-ups and established players are offering an array new services — carsharing, bikesharing, ridesharing, and transportation apps of every sort.

Transit agencies are offering real-time arrival times so riders can find the best route and get there with a minimum of waiting. Uber, a five-year old start-up, just was valued at $18 billion — one of the highest private valuations ever. Venture capitalists around the world are taking notice.

The Portland area plays a special part in this transportation innovation. In 2005, an engineer at Google started working on a skunkworks project to build transit directions into Google Maps.

The big problem was where to get the data. Transit agencies had schedule data in proprietary systems that varied widely from agency to agency. Even if the data were technically accessible, many transit agencies did not want to publish it for free.

TriMet had a different approach. They proactively reached out to Google looking to partner. The result was the General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS), which is used to communicate schedule data.

Google launched its transit directions in Portland first. Now, Google and other apps offer transit directions around the world using GTFS.

TriMet also innovated by investing in open-source trip planning. Traditionally, when transit agencies wanted a trip planner for their website, they worked with private software companies to build one just for their agency. TriMet instead started a project in 2009 with OpenPlans to build an Open Trip Planner for the Portland area that combines bike and transit directions.

The start-up I founded, Nimbler, just introduced its fourth transit app: Nimbler Portland. At the heart of Nimbler’s routing lies Open Trip Planner and GTFS. Nimbler offers transit directions, bike directions and combinations of the two. Nimbler also integrates with TriMet’s real-time vehicle location feed to provide real-time arrival predictions that minimize wait time.

Without the innovative approach of TriMet working with Google, OpenPlans and Open Street Maps, apps like Nimbler would not be possible. Because of TriMet’s leadership, apps around the world are benefiting and innovating using open source and open data for transportation.