Almost as soon as the Maryland Transit Administration began offering real-time data on Baltimore bus locations on its website this month, self-described "civic hacker" Chris Whong got to work mining the data.
Inspecting network traffic each time the website's bus tracker was loaded, he and fellow hackers Shea Frederick and Elliott Plack began translating the system's "obscure codes and acronyms" and figuring out how they were being used to request the locations of buses across the city.
"It was sort of like a little scavenger hunt," Whong said.
In short order, Whong deciphered the system, posted his findings to the website github.com, and attracted the attention of existing transit start-up Transit App.
It took another afternoon for Transit App, a 10-person Montreal-based operation that collates transit information in nearly 90 cities, to incorporate the real-time data into its existing mobile app, which already has 20,000 users in Baltimore.
"We spoke with Chris and he helped show us how we could do it ourselves," said Jake Sion, Transit App's director of strategy and development, of scraping the data from the MTA's website.
Critics questioned why the MTA couldn't produce a mobile app for its data.
The MTA believes its website is functional for customers, said spokesman Rick Binetti on Tuesday
Binetti said the MTA spent four years and invested millions of dollars in its real-time project, which makes data from its antiquated GPS and radio bus hardware usable in its online tracker. Transit App's access to the data is made possible because of that work, Binetti said.
The MTA's system is not designed to handle the "pinging" by Transit App to acquire the data, he said. The MTA's data is also not in a format designed for public distribution, Binetti said. The agency had considered converting its data into a standardized format used securely by other transit agencies across the country, but that would have cost $600,000, he said.
MTA engineers are working to develop a less expensive way to securely provide the data for third parties to use, but aren't there yet, Binetti said.
"The priority for the MTA was to avail this real-time information to the public, our customers, in a usable format, which the MTA believes it did," Binetti said. "The website we believe is very good, although not an app."
Local transit advocates praised hackers such as Whong and Transit App for taking the data into their own hands.
Brian O'Malley, president of the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance, said the rollout of the MTA's new tracker system has been a "mixed bag."
Its website real-time tracker was a step in the right direction, but lots of buses aren't showing up in the system — Sion said about a third of scheduled buses are reporting data, as scraped by Transit App — and the website provides a poor user interface, especially on mobile phones, he said.
Transit App solved the interface issue by plugging the data directly into its mobile-friendly app, O'Malley said.
"In this cold weather, I sometimes feel like it's not worth the trouble to try to get my cold fingers to scroll through [the MTA's website tracker] and try to tell it what bus stop I'm near," O'Malley said. "But with the Transit App, I just open it up and as soon as it's open, it uses my phone's GPS to identify what bus stop is closest to me."
O'Malley said he hopes the app gets more people to use the real-time data, and that will increase the pressure on the MTA to continue improving the system's reliability.
This article initially misspelled the last name of Jake Sion. The Sun regrets the error.