Exit Interview: MTA’s openness wizard talks transparency

Sarah Kaufman was one of the prime movers behind the MTA becoming transparent with its data. Photo: Courtesy Patrick Cashin, MTA

Sarah Kaufman

Projects Coordinator for Intelligent and Emerging Transportation
Systems at New York City Transit

Arrived: Feb 2007

Departed: Dec 2011

Before 2008, the only way to obtain the Metropolitan Transportation Authority subway or bus schedule was through a freedom of information request. Today, the public has electronic access not only to MTA schedules, maps and service advisories on every conceivable technology platform but can also engage with the authority through social media and remix MTA data into websites and software applications.

Sarah Kaufman wore many hats at the MTA, including developer liaison, AppQuest contest organizer, and social media coordinator. She sat down with The New York World shortly after she left the MTA in December to explain how a stubbornly insular government organization like the MTA begins to open its information to the public. Kaufman is now a research associate at NYU Wagner’s Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management.


In practice, how does a New York City agency, or authority like the MTA, become more open?

It doesn’t have as much to do with the step-by-step process as it does the drive to do it. The drive can either come from inside, as it has with DoITT [Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications] and transportation properties in Portland, Oregon or in San Francisco. Or, it’ll come from the outside, which is what happened at MTA. There’s pressure, the pressure has to mount and then there has to be a culture shift to say, ‘Yes, we will do this.’

Once people are on board — and they may have to be convinced one by one, which was the case at MTA — then they eventually see the value of it, usually.


What was the start of the external push to open up MTA data?

The Open Transit Data meet-up was meeting regularly and sending letters to MTA and then they reached out to [Councilmember] Gale Brewer, who is a huge advocate for open data, and she signed on to a petition. Having her name on something and having this very public pressure was the final step in getting it going at MTA.

The meet-up was sponsored by the Open Planning project, which is now OpenPlans. It was a set of developers who were already using MTA data but who wanted a legitimate feed.

But there was no coordination between the MTA and the city and that was to my chagrin because there are so many things that could be collaborated on very easily but there are so many political barriers that maybe it’s just above my pay grade but they don’t make sense to me.


Like what?

Why does MTA have a separate apps challenge from the city? I never understood it and I was one of the planners for the MTA one. When a lot of the entries in city apps competition are MTA related, why does this need to be separate? I still don’t know what the answer to that is but I’m sure it has something more to do with politics than it does anything else.

MTA has a lot of important data that they could be releasing and they’re not because I think people don’t know that they exist. With continued public pressure, people can get a lot.


I had always heard Jay Walder [MTA Chairman from 2009 to 2011] was behind the push for openness. Was he ultimately the source of pressure?

Walder was not shy about how he thought it was ridiculous that MTA hadn’t opened their data. So, that was fortunate. People, I think at the beginning, were doing it because it was an executive mandate, but then slowly caught on to the idea that “Oh, we worked really hard on this dataset but look at this really cool app that a developer created.”


So Brewer and the Open Transit group directed pressure at the MTA and then Walder came in…

And he sealed the deal. Before that if you were a developer who wanted data you would have to fill out a FOI request for the schedule data, and then you would receive a CD in the mail. I’m not kidding, a CD-ROM, this is five years ago. And then you would get a new one every time the schedule changed, which is four times a year, at a minimum.

I don’t even know if my computer had a CD drive on it at that point.


How do you get an organization to become excited about being open?

With New York City Transit I came up with a plan for Twitter: every Monday we would post construction photos from the weekend, Tuesday I don’t remember what the initial decision was, on Wednesdays we’ll have people ask questions, on Thursdays it will be trivia and Fridays we’ll tell people about construction and the upcoming weekend. They were like “That’s great, we don’t have resources. Why don’t you get started doing it?” So I did it. For a few months I was the main tweeter, except they had someone else doing the service deal on Fridays, and got a lot of attention pretty quickly. Peoples’ favorites were the construction photos on Mondays.

People at MTA didn’t believe me that it would be a big deal and it was. It went from 190 followers to ten thousand pretty quickly.

A lot of people were talking about it and saying, you know, “This is really good.” At the same time, a lot of the photos were being taken by the construction managers of their workers and they were thrilled that they were being credited for this work — this thankless work. No one says ‘Thank you for painting my subway station over the weekend.” No one says, “Thank you for welding that piece of track back together.” But people saw these photos and saw these workers out in these terrible conditions and I think people realized how difficult it is to maintain the subway.

So the construction managers were feeling valued and they would send 40 photos from the weekend. We’d be like, “We wanted to post, I don’t know, five?” And they were just thrilled to do it. And so the quality improved and the morale improved. It was kind of a win all around.


This Q&A was edited for length and clarity.

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