WMATA’s half-hearted open data hurts everyone

I’ve written before about WMATA’s API for train positions and API for bus route information. This time, it’s WMATA’s API for elevator and escalator status that is cause for concern. It’s good that WMATA provides this data in a machine-readable format—in fact, they’re one of only a handful of agencies to do so—but as with WMATA’s other APIs, the implementation is half-hearted at best.

Inconsistent data, the absence of a formal developer relations mechanism, and unexplained, unannounced outages are bad for everyone. They make WMATA look bad, obviously. But more importantly, they make developers look bad, and reduce the incentive for local developers to build applications using WMATA’s data. When someone finds that an app doesn’t work, or that they’re getting stale, incomplete, or inconsistent data, their first instinct is usually to blame the app or the app’s developer, not WMATA.

What’s specifically wrong with the ELES API?

  • 11-day outage, made worse by non-existant developer relations:
    From March 28 to April 9, 2012, the ELES feed returned static data. This outage was never acknowledged publicly by WMATA, in any medium.

    Because WMATA does not provide any public point of contact for developer relations, there was no way for developers to formally report the problem, nor any way for developers to get useful information like an estimated time to resolution.

    An API outage such as this may seem like the sort of thing that would only impact a handful of transit data nerds, but rest assured, there were absolutely real-world impacts: Elevator-dependent Metrorail users who relied on mobile applications which used data from the API found themselves trapped at stations where the stale data led them to erroneously believe that an elevator was in service.

    While this may have been a one-time problem, the underlying issue remains: how could a critical service have gone down for 11 days with no public notice?

  • Feed missing information from the Web site:
    Like much of the information in WMATA’s open data initiative, the ELES API presents the same data as is presented on WMATA’s Web site…or at least that’s how it’s supposed to be.

    In reality, while the Web site lists “estimated return to service” dates for each elevator/escalator, that information is omitted from the API. In addition, others have observed that the API feed and Web site don’t always seem to be in sync. This could create considerable confusion for riders who sometimes check the Web site directly and sometimes use an app which gets data from the API.

  • Feed missing information necessary for maximum usefulness:
    Before presenting this point, it’s important to explain how the elevator outage information is used by elevator-dependent riders. When an elevator-dependent rider sees that there’s an elevator outage at a transfer station that will affect them, they generally avoid the outage by transferring at another station (for example, at Fort Totten rather than Gallery Place).

    But if it’s at their origin or destination station, then they can either use another nearby station (like Judiciary Square rather than Gallery Place), or they can call for a shuttle.

    Calling for a shuttle is a difficult, time-consuming process, but in many cases, especially for outlying stations, it’s a necessity.

    Neither WMATA’s Web site nor the API contain a key piece of information needed by elevator-dependent riders: where to go to get a shuttle—which station, which exit at that station, etc. This information is displayed on the PIDS, but is simply not available on the Web in any format.

  • No master list of units:
    As I explained when I wrote about WMATA’s performance monitoring program, including the agency’s Vital Signs Report, only summary statistics are available for WMATA’s elevators and escalators. Want to know which specific units have the best or worst track records? Want to know if a major overhaul has improved a unit’s availability? Want to know how the units at transfer stations hold up, compared to their peers at less-trafficked stations? You can’t, at least not with the data in the Vital Signs Report.

    But, that doesn’t mean it’s absolutely impossible to compute those statistics; it just takes more work. For one thing, you can forget about getting historical data. However, if you’re willing to archive data from the ELES API, you can actually create your own statistics. Store that in a database, and over time you’ll build up a record of which units were out of service, and when. Transfer the result of that into an OLAP cube, and you can slice and dice to your heart’s content. Want a report on units at transfer stations? Done. Want stats on outages specifically at peak hours? Done. Want a report just on your home station? Done.

    There’s only one piece missing: a list of all elevators and escalators in the Metrorail system. Why is this necessary? In order to compute statistics with the outage data, we have to know how many units there are—in statistical terms, the universe. Of course, we can find out from WMATA’s Web site that there are a total of 588 escalators, and 239 elevators, but that’s only good enough for computing the same system-wide metric that the Vital Signs Report provides. Any more detailed analysis—like at a per-station level, or a per-line level, or any of the examples given above, requires knowing not just how many units there are, but the IDs of those units, and their locations (so statistics can be computed on a per-station, or even per-unit level).

    If WMATA had made a real commitment to transparency and open data, and if there were a developer liaison appointed, I’d imagine it might take a day or two to get such a master list of units made available as a CSV or XML file—I would have to imagine that somewhere in the 100 TB of data managed by WMATA, there must be a list of these 827 units.

    But there isn’t even anyone to ask for the data. And, to make matters worse, every such request is treated with suspicion and mistrust. There’s no sense of developers working cooperatively with WMATA; it is, from the outset, combative. Yes, some of these data will make WMATA look bad, but some will make the agency look good—especially when it can be shown that a major overhaul, such as is taking place now at Dupont Circle and will soon take place at Bethesda, improves the reliability of the overhauled units. Besides, transparency isn’t about releasing the data that make you look good, it’s about releasing data, period.

What’s the point of all this, then? When General Manager Sarles says that he “[doesn’t] want to hide problems”, or that the Metro Forward campaign is making tangible improvements for riders, I expect to see data to back up those assertions.

When elevator-dependent riders have to cope with yet another outage, I don’t want for them to find out for the first time when they get to their destination and the only notice they have is a cone in front of the elevator door. I want for there to be timely (and, more importantly, meaningful) information available, in a wide variety of formats, including a high-quality API that encourages app developers to build tools that further increase the accessibility and further widen the dissemination of that information.

Why do I expect these things? I expect these things because Metrorail is supposed to be “America’s Subway”, a world-class system at the forefront of technological innovation and operational excellence. Right now, it is neither of those things. Instead, it is a system where riders climb up and down stopped escalators in dimly-lit stations and hope that their train does not pass over another poorly-maintained track circuit which shall fail to detect that it has become occupied and engender yet another fatal collision. It is a system where secrecy and the maintenance of fiefdoms are the norm, not transparency and cooperation for the good of the riding public.

I don’t claim that open data (and better still, open data that is timely and meaningful) will solve all of those problems, but it is a small step forward, and a step that WMATA could easily take using its existing infrastructure.

One thought on “WMATA’s half-hearted open data hurts everyone”

  1. “I would have to imagine that somewhere in the 100 TB of data managed by WMATA, there must be a list of these 827 units.”

    The API feed includes unit ID’s. You would think getting a full list of the units would be a matter of exporting from the table of available units (unless the UnitID field is a text field being entered by hand and there is no index table for reference, which again would make the data less dependable.

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