When it comes to mass transit, the only thing New Yorkers really care about is punctuality. We’ll elbow onto a packed bus and huff a stranger’s armpit for thirty minutes — and we’ll do it gladly — if it means we get to our destination on time.
But to do that, we need to know when that bus or train is actually going to arrive. That’s why there’s something magical about a countdown timer.
A 2011 MTA survey found that transit stations featuring countdown timers — with their soothing, authoritative glow — increase customer satisfaction in mysterious ways. Survey respondents liked the stations with timers better, but they didn’t know why.
That little display holds a mysterious power. And no one knows that better than Ian Westcott, the 32-year-old Brooklynite who installed one in his house. Well, sort of.
Thanks to an open source data project from the MTA, Westcott was able to bring the wonders of a GPS-monitored bus countdown timer into his living room. With the help of what he insists, dubiously, was just a little simple coding and some off-the shelf-parts, Westcott built his own countdown system.
At the moment it’s sitting on his coffee table.
It all started a month or so back when Westcott, an infrastructure engineer at a web startup, tapped into the MTA’s new Bus Time system to solve a problem he’d been having. The problem, to put it bluntly, was the B70 bus.
Like a lot of new Yorkers, Westcott had a few options to get to work each morning. Which route was faster turned on the relative punctuality of the B70.
If the B70 was in sight when he stepped out of his apartment in Sunset Park, he could hop on, and shave some time off his commute. If it wasn’t, he had to walk a few blocks to catch the D train. Trouble was, the bus, battling traffic like everybody else, rarely arrived at its appointed time. He needed to know when that bus was actually going to arrive, not just when it was scheduled to be there.
The only solution was real time tracking, somtheing the MTA has been working on installing for the past few years. When Bus Time was rolled out, the MTA decided to make the raw feed of location information available to programmers for their own, often creative, ends through an application programming interface (API).
An API is kind of like a virtual outlet. It allows programmers to plug into the raw data feed put out by the MTA’s GPS system and use it to run custom applications or, in this case, an LED sign. It’s the same thing that Twitter and countless other internet services do with their data, giving rise to all kinds of DIY third-party apps.
The MTA’s decision to offer up the data is part of a trend in a lot of city agencies in recent years. The NYC Open Data project is a city-operated central resource that regularly posts a torrent of basic data sets on a huge range of statistics. For example, the page currently has a downloadable spreadsheet of every parking ticket issued in the city, all recent health code violations, and the location of every public telephone. Each spreadsheet is updated daily. It’s a powerful tool not just for journalists and government watchers but also for tinkerers like Westcott.
Westcott’s not the kind of guy who whines about mass transit. Actually, after a few minutes talking with him, you might start to feel like kind of a jerk for all the times you’ve cursed MTA under your breath.
“This region has the best transit of anywhere in the country, arguably. We have it pretty good here,” Westcott says, “And the bus lines in particular, I think, are undervalued.”
Westcott says he’s always trying to talk friends into using — and appreciating — the MTA’s services even more. He’s a bit of a transit evangelist, and it’s infectious. How many people are enthusiastic about their local bus routes? “The B44, the B48, I mean, those are great buses!” Westcott says.
The MTA already has a web page that allows you to check on your bus’s location. But it doesn’t offer the same kid of usability for a project like Westcott’s
“The web page shows the data in a way that’s easy for you to use,” Westcott says, but not so easy for a computer to work with. The MTA’s API strips out all of human-friendly bells and whistles, and leaves you with just a stream of data.
And besides, Westcott was looking for something a little more organic. Like a wall clock, he wanted to be able to glance up and get the information he wanted, without logging on to his computer. The countdown timer was singing its siren song.
With some coding skills and an electronic display — the whole thing cost about $140, Westcott says — he created a WiFi-enabled sign that tells him, at a glance, how far the bus is from his home. No more guessing game.
Westcott could imagine a service that would allow people to buy their own, smaller displays, to connect to a version of the program he designed. He’s made a step by step guide if anyone wants to duplicate his project at home, and he’s not out filing patents. He’s not interested in a money-making venture. Westcott’s just glad he helped make the MTA system a little more usable, even if just for himself. “I’m definitely taking the bus more often than I used to.”
More than anything, the countdown timer was a way to do something not so common in today’s economy, and especially in his line of work.
“When you work with computers a lot, and you work on the internet, sometimes you leave work at the end of the day and you’re like, ‘I don’t have anything tangible to show for my efforts. I don’t have any physical thing that I can hold in my hand,'” “It was a way, I guess, to create something that exists.”