Why DC developers are upset about WMATA's new data terms of use - Technical.ly DC

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Nov. 22, 2017 12:50 pm

Why DC developers are upset about WMATA’s new data terms of use

MetroHero names four specific concerns, and WMATA responds.

A new terms of service rolled into the transit community in October, and not everyone is happy

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This article was updated at 2:40 p.m. on 11/27/17.

The D.C.’s transit tech community’s good relations with WMATA could be in hot water because of a recent open data move from the transit authority.

WMATA recently revised its developer liscence agreement which lays out the terms of service users agree to when using the transit agency’s data. Local developers are telling us that the terms in the new agreement will restrict their ability to develop applications and their own APIs.

The transit agency revised the terms of service on October 12 with the changes effective immediately. The founder of MetroHero and one of WMATA’s biggest API users, James Pizzurro, told us he believes the changes are specifically targeting MetroHero.

Last week, Pizzurro attended a WMATA Board Meeting to make a statement where he listed the changes to the terms of service agreement he called “unreasonable” to the API terms of service. The changes he objected to included:

  • That no user or developer can mention “WMATA” in press releases without letting WMATA first review it.
  • That WMATA can gain access to any user’s applications that use the data, can audit personnel information for anyone working on those applications, and WMATA can also create their own version at any time.
  • That WMATA forbids users from claiming their data is accurate, complete or timely, or claiming it is more so than WMATA’s data.
  • That the transit agency may now charge users in the future for using their data.

Also at the Board Meeting meeting were members of the Riders Advisory Council who expressed similar concerns about the new developer agreement. In the RAC’s agenda for the meeting, they wrote, “In discussing the changes to WMATA’s developer license agreement, both the committee and the entire RAC are concerned that WMATA sees existing apps as competition for one that it may be developing. Ideally the apps would be complementary, with all developers (WMATA included) focusing on their technological strengths.”

 

Pizzurro said the changes were a result of a conversation he started in May of 2016 with the transit agency, when he began exploring the idea of offering his own APIs on MetroHero to build an app.

“People wanted that. We had developers offering to make it,” Pizzuro told us. “The only data we are collecting from WMATA is the train positions and the bus positions. Everything else we then do ourselves.”

The conversation was shelved in 2016, and restarted in May of 2017. Then, after several months of communications, WMATA changed the terms of service for their data, announcing the revisions on an RSS feed a day later that users had to be subscribed to in order to see. These changes limit MetroHero’s ability to publicize its work, and make claims about its own APIs, among other restrictions according to Pizzurro.

“We thought it was a pretty innocent question back in May but it certainly blew up into a much longer question,” he said. “We did release our APIs, we are just limping a bit.”

MetroHero, which is run by Pizzurro and Dr. Jennifer Hill and funded by Patreon donations, released their APIs on October 26. Pizzurro has since continued to reach out to WMATA to ask for a discussion of the new terms of service.

Sample of real-time data MetroHero makes available from a combination of its own data and WMATA's APIs

A sample of real-time data MetroHero makes available from a combination of its own data and WMATA’s APIs. (via MetroHero)

He emailed the agency’s General Manager Paul Wiedefeld on November 2nd, requesting for more information about what led to the revision.

Wiedefeld responded four days later, writing that he remained in “full support” for the agency’s Transparent Dataset program and did not believe the changes restricted developers’ ability to innovate. Wiedefeld also added that WMATA, had, “reached out to some top users of our API for feedback on the proposed changes, prior to posting, and none expressed concerns.”

Pizzurro then emailed WMATA’s customer service on November 6 to ask why MetroHero hadn’t been included in the feedback rounds. He has not yet received a response, and filed a public records request on November 7 for all records relating to the decision to revise the terms of service.

Pizzurro and the RAC are not alone in their concerns. Following last month’s Metro Hack Night meeting, we spoke with Transportation Techies organizer Michael Schade, who described the revised terms of service as “unfriendly” and “not pleasant.”

Yesterday evening, WMATA’s Office of Media Relations emailed Technical.ly a statement, saying, “After a thorough review, Metro’s Developer User Agreement was updated to reflect the evolving technology landscape, align our policies with other developer program standards across the industry and maintain protection of our brand.”

The statement concluded by asserting WMATA was not restricting any developer’s ability to innovate with the agency’s data: “These changes do not inhibit developers from building a partnership with WMATA, nor the freedom to create or innovate in the communities of transportation and technology. We value Developers and encourage their continued use of our data to help our riders and promote public transportation.”

TransitScreen’s Matt Caywood had a different opinion when we spoke last week. “TransitScreen is one of the biggest users of the APIs,” said Caywood. Because of that, he said he had “a pretty good sense of what’s out of the norm” when it came to user agreements.

Caywood told us although he had seen versions of the clause before, WMATA’s new policy to let the agency access developer’s applications and personnel information is “a little bit aggressive.” He also questioned the agency’s choice to not use a more standard publicity clause, which he says would still prevent developers from making false claims about partnering with an agency.

But for Caywood, the most unusual part of WMATA’s new agreement was the clause prohibiting developers from making claims of accuracy or timeliness about their data.

“To prohibit developers from saying the data we provide is timely and accurate is kind of ridiculous,” said Caywood. “If we can’t say the data provided from our company was accurate then what’s the value of the data?”

According to Caywood and Pizzurro, neither TransitScreen nor MetroHero were consulted during the feedback sessions General Manager Paul Wiedefeld said WMATA conducted.

For Caywood, WMATA’s desire to protect its brand is reminiscent of the early days when some transit agencies were reluctant to open their data for public use. “Agencies got over that,” he said, referring to their reluctance to share data. “Ultimately I think they will get over this, too.”

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