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At the MTA, a Data Maven is Moving On

BY Nick Judd | Monday, December 5 2011

Sarah Kaufman, one of the main engines behind the New York City Metropolitan Transportation Authority's rapid evolution into a friendly partner with third-party software developers, is leaving the authority later this week to take a job in academia.

Kaufman is leaving the MTA, the public benefit corporation responsible for all of the city's subway and bus systems, much of its commuter rail pathways and some of its bridges, to take a position at New York University. She will join the university's Rudin Center for Transportation Policy Management, part of the Wagner School for Public Policy. Kaufman's last day at the MTA will be Wednesday.

At the MTA, Kaufman went beyond her job description — at her departure, focused on customer communcations technologies — to serve as a primary point of contact for developers building applications on top of the data the MTA releases.

As late as 2009, the MTA was actively discouraging people from attempting to build even software tools that it couldn't or wouldn't build itself, taking a proprietary stance on its data as well as its marks, like the logos for each subway line. Then people like Kaufman and external actors like the folks at OpenPlans began to get involved; under the leadership of then-MTA-chairman Jay Walder, the authority began reaching out to developers instead of, by Walder's own admission, pushing them away. Now, the authority is banking on the ingenuity of third parties to provide services atop MTA-offered data at a time when it continues to struggle with everything from a perennially tight budget to a lack of continuity at the top of its organizational chart. It is this pro-sharing attitude that has allowed MTA data to show up in Google Maps, for instance; for authority staff to answer questions on Twitter; and for developers to build new tools for riders, like this one, which guides riders towards the subway station exits closest to where they are trying to go.

The MTA now maintains a Google group for developers to go back and forth with authority staff about their data; Kaufman is a chief moderator of that list and an all-around liaison between the public benefit corporation and the city's tech community.

"We’re working on determining who might take on her numerable roles," MTA spokesman Aaron Donovan wrote to me in an email.

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