Great example of government-private cooperation: Harper Reed wins award for CTA's Bus Tracker API

Guest post from my brother Dan. X. O’Neil:

This is a feel-good story about loose, effective collaboration between a private citizen and a government agency that bears real fruit for minimal money.

Harper and daley.jpg

Even da Mayor knows Harper Reed is a cool dude.

Tonight Harper Reed, the creator of the “CTA Bus Tracker “API”, is going to be one of the inaugural winners of the MCIC Data Innovation Award. The other two worthy winners– the Center for Neighborhood Technology and the Chicago Climate Action Plan— are a city contractor and the work product of a city agency. Harper is just a dude hacking things. That’s pretty awesome.

You may remember a post in January 2009 explaining how Harper figured out how to extract data from the CTA Bus Tracker system and cache it for use in other applications. Here’s a snip:

When most people go to the CTA Bus Tracker Web site and click on Estimated Arrival Times or the Bus Location Map, they see a way to find out when their next bus might get to the stop near them. Another nifty map mashup they can use to plot their trips daily.

When Harper Reed saw the same Web site, he saw every bus, everywhere, forevermore. And he wanted that data. “The power is not the mashup. It’s the data. The data is the answer,” says Harper.

So he set out to separate the data from the mashup. He used Firebug, the nifty Firefox add-on, to monitor that network traffic (the communication that goes between the browser window and the server) that was driving the data to the page. This way, he found the URLs of the “endpoints” — a fancy word for URLs with special codes inside them — that control the entire Bus Tracker system.

After creating this system, he interacted with the CTA itself, where
developers and technology managers (especially Tony Coppoletta and
Graham Garfield) were really open to his work. This
kicked off lots of close interaction that continues to this day.

In fact, when the CTA published their first official Bus Tracker API documentation, they closed with, “special thanks go to Harper Reed and Dan O’Neil for their support and advice, and to the independent development community, for showing such great interest in developing applications with CTA data, leading to the creation of this official API.”

Now there’s a whole world of apps built using these specifications, helping riders and leading to economic growth here in Chicago. That’s a pretty good round-trip between a private citizen, working on his own, and a city agency, looking to learn.

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