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You probably know the story already — scrappy developer Steven Peterson made an iPhone app called Routesy to help users figure out when Muni was actually going to arrive using data from NextBus, a company that places GPS transponders on buses to provide relatively accurate arrival predictions. Then, a guy with a murky connection to NextBus approached Peterson and told him our Muni arrival times actually belonged to his company, demanded money, then just had Apple kill the app.

However, the SF MTA disagreed and said that that data belongs to we, the people. In the interim, that guy with the murky NextBus connection (his name is Alex Orloff, his company is called NextBus Information Systems, which is not the same thing as NextBus) emailed us saying things like “Language is such a tricky thing,” when it came to who owned and could access NextBus’ real-time arrival information.

Well, language got a little less tricky this weekend, as the SF MTA released instructions on how to access NextBus’ XML data for all to use. Not that they made a big to-do about it — we actually only realized it after seeing this BART announcement on how you can now coordinate Muni Metro and BART arrival information. Trust the SF MTA to not bother to mention it when they do something good!

So what does this mean for the casual Muni rider? Nothing, immediately, and maybe that’s why the MTA hid their light under a basket. But for aspiring Steven Petersons, folks eager to make take Muni’s arrival data and make applications for riders, this is pretty exciting news. (And we had one of our nerdiest friends try this feed out, and he assures us it works.)

NextBus spokesperson Mike Smith, a longtime advocate of open transit data, seems pleased, telling us “SF MTA clarified several months ago that they are sole owners of the NextMuni real-time data. But now with the public feed they are actually enabling passengers to reap the benefits by enabling the information to be provided to passengers in new and interesting ways. It will be very exciting to see what new applications third-party developers come up with.”

Added at 12:54: And Steven Peterson, the man who started it all, seems happy, too. “I think that the open data feed will create competition, which will be great for commuters. I hope Routesy will continue to be the best app, and the one that most people choose, but I’m open to anyone who wants to try to kick my butt. It’ll be invigorating.”

Speaking of third-party developers, there is a developer who believed Alex Orloff when he told them that Muni’s arrival times belonged to his company: AppTight, the makers of iCommute, admittedly entered into a contract with Orloff’s company. Their spokesperson, Kelly Beener (who did not respond to an email requesting comment for this story), has told us “our understanding of the issue leads us to believe that NBIS is accurate in their assessment of their right to control the publishing of Nextbus predictions and therefore we are not inclined to seek a change in our agreement” and “we’re confident that NBIS is acting in good faith and in the best interest of all involved.”

Added 12:54: Peterson’s not so convinced, saying “I have no idea how NBIS can continue to justify taking money from AppTight.” Since our initial publication of this piece at 10:26 AM, AppTight’s Kelly Beener has promised us a response explaining just that, which we’re still waiting for.

Mike Smith, of NextBus, states things pretty plainly, saying “Alex Orloff and NBIS are not agents of NextBus Inc, the company that creates the real-time passenger information for San Francisco Muni and other agencies.” (Orloff did not respond to an email requesting comment for this story. Update 1:37: Orloff just emailed us, saying “I am having trouble finding an email requesting comment for the story. Did you send me an email ? It doesn’t appear so. I suppose I should wait to see what questions you have before I attempt to respond.” So we’ve resent our questions for him, and will update when he replies.) So, Muni data app developers, if Orloff comes knocking at your door, please do let us know, but don’t worry — he’s without a leg on which to stand.

This is great news — now, developers need not fear a shakedown from some tangential company claiming ownership of data that belongs to all of us! Now they’ll be free to make all sorts of applications telling us just how long we have to wait for the bus. So get going, kids, and make us some cool stuff.

the author

Eve Batey is the editor and publisher of the San Francisco Appeal. She used to be the San Francisco Chronicle's Deputy Managing Editor for Online, and started at the Chronicle as their blogging and interactive editor. Before that, she was a co-founding writer and the lead editor of SFist. She's been in the city since 1997, presently living in the Outer Sunset with her husband, cat, and dog. You can reach Eve at eve@sfappeal.com.

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  • Greg Dewar

    This is good news, and it’s too bad Muni doesn’t publicize it more. Sucks to be iCommute, they paid the extortion fees for nada!

  • Greg Dewar

    This is good news, and it’s too bad Muni doesn’t publicize it more. Sucks to be iCommute, they paid the extortion fees for nada!

  • Fred

    This whole incident demonstrates why “intellectual property” law needs radical reform.

  • Fred

    This whole incident demonstrates why “intellectual property” law needs radical reform.

  • Kelly Beener

    When we launched iCommute-SF we were soon contacted by NextBus Information Systems. They informed us of their distribution rights and that they would be happy to work with us, providing data under a simple and straightforward licensing arrangement. Being experienced software and mobile developers we understand that working openly and fairly with the legal owner of the distribution rights is beneficial in the long term by best serving the most important party, the end users. Having an official partnership gave us better and more accurate information and subsequently a more robust and reliable application. We did not ask for nor receive exclusivity, therefore the arrangement was open to all developers.

    We have seen the agreement that governs the relationship between NextBus and NBIS and believe that NBIS has represented itself with integrity. When Muni released the data for public use we were able to adjust the relationship with NBIS accordingly. We are all intelligent people and able to communicate effectively and adapt our agreements to reflect a changing landscape.

    One might state that simply because a situation is bound by contract doesnt make it fair or sensible. And this is true. However, we believe the NextBus Information Systems Franchise Agreement to be sensible and frankly, of benefit to independent developers. The fee was quite marginal in cost yet granted much in the way of direct access, information and reliability.

    SF Muni riders have been able to access real-time Muni and BART predictions freely using iCommute-Lite for several weeks now and we have found that the user base is growing rapidly. We encourage SF iPhone users to try our free app and see if it provides a better transit riding experience.

    Happy Commuting!

  • Kelly Beener

    When we launched iCommute-SF we were soon contacted by NextBus Information Systems. They informed us of their distribution rights and that they would be happy to work with us, providing data under a simple and straightforward licensing arrangement. Being experienced software and mobile developers we understand that working openly and fairly with the legal owner of the distribution rights is beneficial in the long term by best serving the most important party, the end users. Having an official partnership gave us better and more accurate information and subsequently a more robust and reliable application. We did not ask for nor receive exclusivity, therefore the arrangement was open to all developers.

    We have seen the agreement that governs the relationship between NextBus and NBIS and believe that NBIS has represented itself with integrity. When Muni released the data for public use we were able to adjust the relationship with NBIS accordingly. We are all intelligent people and able to communicate effectively and adapt our agreements to reflect a changing landscape.

    One might state that simply because a situation is bound by contract doesnt make it fair or sensible. And this is true. However, we believe the NextBus Information Systems Franchise Agreement to be sensible and frankly, of benefit to independent developers. The fee was quite marginal in cost yet granted much in the way of direct access, information and reliability.

    SF Muni riders have been able to access real-time Muni and BART predictions freely using iCommute-Lite for several weeks now and we have found that the user base is growing rapidly. We encourage SF iPhone users to try our free app and see if it provides a better transit riding experience.

    Happy Commuting!