As I look through the developer, data, and API portals of transit authorities in cities around the United States, one thing is clear–they are all underfunded, understaffed, and not a priority. This is something that will have to change if transit authorities are expected to survive, let alone thrive in a digital world. I’m working on a series of white papers as part of my partnership with Streamdata.io, on transit data, and the monetization of public data. I’ll be writing more on this subject as part of this work, but I needed to start working through my ideas, and begin crafting my narrative around how transit authorities can generate much needed revenue and compete in this digital world.
I know that many transit authorities often see data as a byproduct, and something that is occasionally useful, and that their main objective is to keep the trains running. However, every tech company, and developer out there understands the value of the data being generated by the transit schedule, the trains, and most importantly the ridership. The Googles, Ubers, and data brokers are mining this data, enriching their big data warehouses, and actively working to generate revenue from transit authorities most valuable assets–their riders. Ticket sales, and people riding the trains seems like the direct value generation, but in the era of big data, where those people are going, what they are doing, reading, thinking, and who they are doing it with is equally or more valuable than the price of the ticket to ride.
Most of the transit APIs I’m using require you to sign up for a key, so there is some sort of API management in place. However, there are still huge volumes of feeds and downloads that are not being managed, and there is no evidence that there is any sort of analysis, reporting, or other intelligence being gathered from API consumption. Demonstrating that API management is more about rate limiting, and keeping servers up, than it is ever realizing what API management is truly about in the mainstream API world–value and revenue generation. Transit authorities need to understand that API management isn’t just about restricting access, it is about encouraging access, and developing awareness regarding the value of the data resources they have in their possession.
I’m sure there is so much more data available behind the scenes beyond the schedules, vehicles, or even the real time information some transit authorities are making available. There is no reason that fare purchases, user demographics, neighborhood, sensors, ticket swipes, and other operational data can’t be made available, of course taking care of privacy and security concerns. Technology platforms, and application developers have an insatiable appetite for this type of data, and are willing to pay for it. The greatest lie the devil has told is that public data should always be free, even for commercial purposes, allowing tech companies to freely mine, and generate revenues while transit authorities and municipalities struggle to make ends meet.
I’m not saying that transit data shouldn’t be freely available, and accessible by everyone, but there needs to be more balance in the system, and API management is how you do this. You measure who takes from the system, how much, and you pay or charge accordingly. Right now, there are applications mining transit data schedules and rider details, and selling leads to Uber, Lyft, and other ride share, further cannibalizing our public transit system. Transit authorities need to realize the value they generate on a daily basis, and understand that API management is key to quantifying this value, and generating the revenue they need to stay in operation, and even grow and thrive, better serving their constituents at a time when they need them the most.