After moving away from then-roommates and into my first collegiate studio apartment in 1997, I had an idea where to go for groceries, dry cleaning, and beer; but I was clueless where my new home was situated in relation to the rest of the city. I preferred to walk than drive but, short of plotting locations into MapQuest or scrutinizing printed road atlases, how was I supposed to know where everything was in relation to where I lived? I had it tough. Today’s college kids — and the rest of us — have it much easier.
Internet applications were around 12 years ago but mashing open data sets, previously hidden behind the veil of government or buried in the neurons of software developers who didn’t know how to tap into future ahh moments, was a pipe dream. In many localities, it’s still tough to learn where things are — but the web makes it easier. When I moved into my current apartment two years ago, I was forced to rely on neighbors and the Chamber of Commerce for a directory of where to go.
No more. Courtesy of Walk Score, we can now visually see where we live in relation to places we may want to go — but moreover, in the name of global warming and reducing our carbon footprints, we can see how walkable our neighborhoods and cities stack against others. Click the below image to zoom.
With a score of 91 out of 100, my Newburyport street is a walker’s paradise: a quarter-mile from numerous bars, bistros, and bookstores; a half-mile from a hardware store; and less than a mile from the public transit MBTA station. Friends who live two miles east on Plum Island don’t have amenities as proximate to their homes, and so their walkability scores are much less.
While Walk Score focuses on mashing cityscapes with business data, powered by Google Maps, what of public transit? If the goal is to drive less, then what about getting to places too far to walk and without necessitating getting into your car? You want to know if the bus or train or subway you’re waiting for is on time, right?
There are 748 transit agencies across the United States, like the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, whose trains I ride between Newburyport and Boston; but only 96 of those agencies, including the MBTA, open their data sets to the public and enable software developers to design user-friendly applications of benefit to the operators and the riders. Launched earlier this month by the folks responsible for Walk Score, City-Go-Round acts as a one-stop portal for bus schedules and more.
Here’s chief technology CTO Matt Lerner in StreetsBlog:
“We sort of made the apps the carrot to show what they can get with open data and the wall of shame for those that don’t,” said Lerner, who speculated that some agencies, like the New York MTA, were holding out for licensing opportunities or other ways to make money off of the data.
Rather than hold onto the data and seek licensing, Lerner thinks the cost savings to the operators would be more valuable to the public than a short-term license fee. “It ends up being a huge cost savings for the agencies. I think it’s going to be harder and harder for New York to justify not opening up the data that was collected with taxpayer money.”
And therein lies the rub. If the people are paying for something with their hard-earned cash, shouldn’t they see it and be able to play with it however they see fit?