Open-Source Software: Prospects for Supporting Mobility Management – Part 3

  • Author: Kevin Chambers
  • Date: February 19, 2021

 

The first and second posts of this series provided background information on open-source software (OSS) and examples of the business models that support OSS projects. But what does all this have to do with mobility management?

Are There Already Open-Source Software Projects for Mobility Management?

The short answer: No. Although OSS is used in public transportation contexts, it’s not really part of mobility management’s small slice of that big pie. In addition to OpenTripPlanner, which was covered in part 2 of this series, examples of current transit-related OSS projects include:

  • OneBusAway, along with TheTransitClock, all of which provide real-time vehicle data
  • OpenStreetMap, a community-driven effort to map the world 
  • RidePilot, a scheduling and dispatching system, originally conceived by this author, designed to meet the needs of a network of small demand-responsive transportation providers

For a detailed list that covers OSS and a multitude of transit-related technology, see this community-generated compilation from the Center for Urban Transportation Research at the University of Southern Florida.

While there are multiple organizations supporting open data for transit (like MobilityData), currently, the worlds of mobility management and OSS don’t overlap much, even though there are many overlapping values, such as the mutual emphasis on collaboration and sharing of resources.

What’s Getting in the Way?

The Utah Transit Authority (UTA) is one of the premier agencies in the United States that uses open source tools to support mobility management. Ryan Taylor, UTA Coordinated Mobility Manager, describes mobility managers’ challenges:  “We’re really fortunate in Utah. We have a large staff and we have an investment from our agency. And we have support with the direction that we’ve gone. That being said, I think that a lot of mobility managers are stretched really thin. I think they’re asked to do a lot with very little, many are working on a shoestring budget. I think it’s difficult for them to want to jump into an unknown world of open source as a mobility manager.”

There are at least three barriers to connecting mobility managers with OSS.

  • Staff capacity: Generally, mobility management is handled by one or two people at an agency, often along with other duties. Adding the responsibility of engaging in an OSS project’s development or maintenance would be burdensome under most circumstances.
  • No OSS counterpart: There is no open-source software development organization directly dedicated to supporting smaller-scale transit—in other words, the scale at which mobility management tends to operate.
  • Expertise: Most mobility managers don’t have a background in technology, so even if they had time in their days to take on OSS, the learning curve would be steep.

Capacity building could help overcome these barriers, but it would take a concerted effort to make a big impact.

Scale: A Key Ingredient

As hinted at in the overview of the Postgres and OpenTripPlanner projects, open source solutions are most powerful when there is a critical mass of users and contributors. Ryan Taylor values open source for “the ability that it gives you to build upon and share without having to have multiple investments in the same thing.” The most efficient way for open source solutions to take hold is for a large funder (national or at least state-level) to provide seed funding for multiple implementations. That way, from the beginning a community of users can share the benefits as new features and customizations are developed.

What Can I Do Now?

There are ways to get involved with OSS, even before a large funder steps up to support the first OSS project dedicated to mobility management.

  • Use OSS as a consumer. There are numerous open source projects that are mature and ready to go regardless of your technology background. There’s Firefox for browsing the web, WordPress for creating websites, GIMP for editing images, and LibreOffice for productivity, all of which are designed to be easily installed (or hosted, in the case of WordPress) and used. Go forth and download today.
  • Join an existing OSS community. You don’t need to be a programmer to participate in an open source project. All the projects just listed above always need help with user testing, documentation, and language translation. Finally, there’s governance; if you get involved with a project and are invested in its success, you may consider being a voice in charting its course for the long haul.
  • Expand your own and your organization’s technology chops generally. As stated in the first post in this series, OSS is first and foremost software. If you work to understand the software landscape overall, you’ll be better equipped to see the most realistic opportunities for OSS compared to proprietary software.
  • Advocate for OSS. When your agency is procuring new software, support the exploration of OSS options. If there are OSS projects such as OpenTripPlanner that you think should be considered when making technology investments, work to make sure that formal procurements reflect that interest.
  • Emulate OSS principles. Computer code isn’t the only thing that can be collaboratively developed and maintained. Wikis like Wikipedia and TransitWiki allow users to contribute and edit content. Is there information that needs input from many people in your organization that could be put into a wiki? Or do you have thoughts to add to an existing wiki? At a broader scale, emulating OSS principles can mean promoting government transparency. Our next blog series will focus on open data, which is one of the hallmarks of technology-supported transparent governance. Stay tuned for more!

Is It Time for an Open Source Mobility Management Project?

Our magic 8 ball gave us the answer “Reply hazy, try again.” There are precedents outside the transit/mobility realm for organized OSS development, such as the electronic medical record software available through OpenEMR. What would it mean for our sector to be “ready” to launch an open-source development effort paired with a nonprofit foundation? A good starting point could be identifying an unmet need for specific software. Is there a need for an open-source tool that’s just for mobility managers? Let us know what you think at technologist@nc4mm.org.

We’d love to hear from you!

Have more mobility news that we should be reading and sharing? Let us know! Reach out to Kirby Wilhelm (wilhelm@ctaa.org).

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