Civic hackers are already building a better MTA bus tracking system - Baltimore


Feb. 16, 2015 8:59 am

Civic hackers are already building a better MTA bus tracking system

The system, which uses GPS to provide the locations of city buses, is in beta for the next 100 days. Civic hackers aren't waiting.

An MTA bus in downtown Baltimore.

(Photo by Flickr user Jarrett Stewart, used under a Creative Commons license)

Instead of venturing out beyond the curb to see if the bus is coming, the Maryland Transit Administration wants riders to be able to check their phones.

That’s great and all, but some civic-minded technologists say the agency is going about it all wrong.

“The MTA should put their energy into improving the reliability of the real-time bus locations, then building a well documented, standards-based open API,” said Chris Whong, a Baltimore-bred civic hacker now living in Brooklyn. “Let Baltimore’s community of developers and civic hackers worry about building the user-facing apps.”

To Whong, the bus tracker is a “perfect example” of misplaced priorities by the government.

"The burning question was whether or not the data feeding the MTA's tracker was consumable by third-parties."
Chris Whong

Here’s what happened.

Last Monday, the city launched a beta version of a tracking program for MTA buses. Over the next 100 days, the transit authority will test the web-based My MTA Tracker for Bus in focus groups made up of employees, riders and others. The program will be available on the My MTA Tracker website. Riders can also sign up for text and email alerts on the site.

The web app uses GPS to determine arrival times at specific stops. MTA devs have been working for the last year on it. GPS was already installed on buses, but engineers had to create compatibility between the tracking software and three separate operator logon systems.

MTA reps told Baltimore Brew that those cellular systems are 25 years old.

At times, buses will drop off the route, and operators have to log back on. According to the Baltimore Sun, improvements are “years away.”

By releasing a public beta, the MTA acknowledged that there would be issues to work out. But complaints started to mount early. Many routes didn’t appear to show real-time data. The platform has been anticipated for years, so civic hackers aren’t going to wait 100 days.


In the first week, a new map has already emerged.

The project was spearheaded by Whong, a Baltimore native and open data enthusiast who built a New York City taxi trip visualizer last summer. Whong now lives in Brooklyn, but complaints about the MTA tracker app on the Baltimore Transit Facebook Group (which he helped create) caught his eye.


An effort to make the MTA’s bus tracker data more user friendly. (Screenshot)

The map Whong created basically shows how many vehicles are reporting at a given time. It doesn’t show routes or timing. Whong’s goal in getting the map up and running was to show that the raw data from the MTA was usable.

“The burning question was whether or not the data feeding the MTA’s tracker was consumable by third-parties,” he told Baltimore via email. “With a bit of tinkering I was able to track down the endpoint that serves real-time location data, and managed to get it to respond with data from all of the routes, not just one or two.”

The app showed that the buses “reporting” the data fluctuated.

At 8 a.m. Wednesday, about 145 buses showed up. Throughout the day, the count was mostly in the 80s. As of 11 a.m. Wednesday, the map showed about 150 buses reporting. Fellow civic hacker Shea Frederick jumped in to add automated refresh, and add tails to the bus locations. Whong also wants to add data logging to show how far off schedule the buses are. The project already has a presence on GitHub.

You must appreciate accurate, relevant and productive community journalism.  Support this sort of work from professional reporters with seasoned editors.  Become a member for $12 per month -30-
  • MTA000

    according to this the 2/16/15 sb 27 is exactly on time as of 12:33pm, so i guess you must have messed up terribly. just kidding great work.


BGE rolls out electric buses for employee shuttle service

Intel has new technology to cover a bus’ blind spots

Transit app is tracking Santa’s Baltimore bus rides



How Think|Stack and Year Up are cultivating local tech talent

Baltimore, MD

Money Map Press

HTML / CSS Production Specialist

Apply Now
3500 Boston St, Baltimore, MD 21224


Sales and Business Analyst

Apply Now

Terbium Labs

Account Executive

Apply Now

MICA names first Game Designer-in-Residence

New bus system, new map: see it here

Dig into Baltimore court data at this April 27 hack night



Let these free workshops help your business really take off

Hunt Valley

ONeil Interactive

Digital Creative Manager

Apply Now
Hunt Valley

ONeil Interactive

Junior Digital Strategist

Apply Now
Baltimore, MD

14 West

HTML / CSS Production Specialist

Apply Now

Sign-up for regular updates from

Do NOT follow this link or you will be banned from the site!