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How the Apple-Google Fight and the New iOS6 Might Be Good for Open Source

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Wednesday, July 11 2012

Open Plans and Portland, Oregon's Tri-Met system launched a multi-modal online trip planner last year

Apple upset public transit advocates and environmentalists this year when it was revealed in mid-June that the next iteration of its operating system for the iPhone and iPad will omit public transportation into its bundled Maps software.

Open data advocates and public transit buffs blasted the move. They charged that iPhone users would now have to download multiple applications in order to figure out how to get from point A to point B instead of having that information directly integrated into the default map application. Open data advocate Clay Johnson, for example, suggested that users might end up being stuck having to download a new app for every single transit agency instead of having transit information from different agencies all neatly summarized for them in one default map application. It's unclear exactly why this happened, but reports point to a desire to get Google out of the native iOS experience. Previous iterations of Apple's native map software used Google Maps layers, which come with Google-aggregated transit feeds; the next one, it appears, won't.

But Kevin Webb, a manager in charge of transit projects at the non-profit group OpenPlans, says that these fears are misplaced, and that Apple's move could potentially unleash a new wave of innovation in public transit apps.

What the mid-June furor unmasked, he said in an interview, is an emerging and disturbing norm illustrating the public's growing reliance on Google to provide a piece of 21st-century infrastructure that should be public.

"The way we've framed it now, with Google being responsible for creating and sharing these things for us, and us just following along, is really not where I would like to see things going," Webb said in an interview. "Maybe we can find better ways to do this, and we shouldn't be tying up basic information and resources in these sorts of tools and proprietary stacks and platforms that really are bargaining chips in a much larger strategic plan that has nothing to do with transit."

To move the ball forward, transit agencies need to publish the feeds of their transit information (using the General Transit Feed Specification, a standard Google helped to develop) publicly and enable anyone to build on top of it, he said. The problem lies with agencies not willing to do that, not Apple deciding not to integrate work that Google and the transit community has already done.

To demonstrate his point, OpenPlans will launch a Kickstarter campaign next week to solicit funds to build an iPhone app for iOS 6 to be launched at the same time as Apple releases the next version of its operating system. The plan is to integrate all of the public transit feeds that are currently available in GTFS across the United States and pressure agencies not making that data available to join other agencies that have. Currently Atlanta, Ga., and Phoenix, Ariz., only make that data available to Google, Webb says.

"We're going to build an iPhone app on this back-end service," Webb said. "We're going to do this as a demonstration to people that this is an opportunity for innovation rather than a disappointing turn of events."

OpenPlans has already had experience in this area. Last year, it worked with Portland's public transit agency Tri-Met to launch the Tri-Met Regional Trip Planner. The online trip planner allows users to plan their routes using a combination of transit systems -- buses, light rail and commuter rail. It also integrates other routing options with bike and walking paths.

The code for the project is open source, and different implementations of "Open Trip Planner" are deployed in 10 countries around the world, with different companies implementing custom versions of Open Trip Planner for transit agencies around the world.

Webb pointed to a global trip planning startup called Rome 2 Rio as an example of what's possible once standardized information is made available from airlines, transit agencies and other transportation providers. The company enables consumers to plan their routes between major destinations in the world using a variety of modes of transit. (The company makes money through commissions from hotels and rental car companies.)

"There's a lot of handwringing about how only Google can do this, but that's actually not true," Webb said. "If you take [GTFS] and communicate that data, any number of people can build tools around that standard."

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