Wednesday, April 7, 2010

MBTA embraces Mass tech community -- instead of suing it

The Globe reports today in T taps tech-savvy to keep riders in loop that a 42-year-old software engineer has created an LED sign to show the real arrival time for the next two buses at the stop closest to his home in Jamaica Plain. It took him only an afternoon's work, and $350 worth of equipment.

Reporter Eric Moskowitz writes that the ability of a volunteer to do this is among:
the first results of a trial program in which the MBTA, once a careful guardian of its data, is now sharing information freely with local software developers, web entrepreneurs, and at-home tinkerers to see if they can do better than the T itself at finding innovative ways to keep commuters up to date.

Hooray! It wasn't so long ago that the MBTA was suing people who took these kinds of liberties.

In summer 2008, the MBTA sued to "gag" three MIT students whose research highlighted flaws in the T's electronic "Charlie Card" and "Charlie Ticket" payment systems. The ACLU of Massachusetts helped to defend the students, and on August 19, 2008, U.S. District Court Judge George A. O'Toole, Jr., rejected continuation of the gag order.

The students -- whose work was for a class on computer and network security, and for which they received an "A" from MIT Professor Ronald R. Rivest -- said that they never planned to release the information needed to actually breach the MBTA fare payment systems. They withheld key details from slides they prepared for a conference presentation in order to prevent malicious use of their work, and even provided a report on their findings to the MBTA.

I hope this new openness at the MBTA continues. The agency -- stuck with more than $8 billion in debt, much of which was incurred for the sake of the Big Dig -- has problems that probably can't be solved by hobbyists. But while waiting for the next bus or train, it couldn't hurt to know more about what to expect.

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