February 16, 2009
TriMet Embraces Open Source Technology
As public transit ridership grows around the country, transit agencies are looking for new ways to provide riders with helpful information and innovative tools without having to purchase, build or reinvent technology products. Portland’s Tri-County Metropolitan Transportation District of Oregon is doing this by embracing open source technology.
Innovative Tools Equal Satisfied Customers
One of TriMet’s best examples of using open source technology for customer benefit is its interactive online system map. Since 2003, when the agency introduced its first online map, new technologies have dramatically changed the world of online maps, and customers wanted more. TriMet selected an open source alternative using GeoServer, OpenLayers, and PostGIS. This solution was standards compliant, met TriMet’s requirements, and had a broad development community that extended a superior level of support.
Customers can quickly access stop and amenity information, plan a trip, and see schedules and real-time arrival data with the online map as their central navigation tool. Map users can also store multiple trips and revisit them again and again. The application incorporates driving and biking directions and links to other outside sources of information such as Microsoft’s Virtual Earth and Google StreetView.
“This new tool gives TriMet customers, especially those new to transit, a level of familiarity with our system and builds confidence that they can ride successfully,” said Tim McHugh, TriMet’s chief technology officer.
Open source technology has emerged as a popular means for information technology (IT) professionals to implement new software products without significantly impacting their organizations’ bottom line. It offers a collaborative approach to the design, development, and distribution of software with free access to the source code. One benefit to this approach is often the large user, developer, and support base that builds around the software, which results in faster-maturing and more innovative products.
“Open source is like the Wikipedia of the software world,” McHugh said. “It’s a business model that enables free and open access to—and enhancement of—the resources we want and need to serve our customers better.”
Through open source, TriMet and its customers have been able to benefit directly from the collaboration this approach encourages. For instance, developers have created more than half a dozen transit tracking applications for the iPhone, giving TriMet customers tools that it did not have the resources to develop itself.
Conversely, TriMet developed Timetable Publisher, an open source application that transforms scheduling data into easy-to-read timetables and simplifies the production of printed on-street schedules and web schedules. TriMet released this application so other agencies could use and contribute to it, resulting ultimately in better, faster, more accurate information for customers. TriMet makes this and other developer resources publicly available through the web site developer.trimet.org.
Maximizing Resources, Minimizing Costs
TriMet has also embraced open source technology as a means of keeping costs down. Even more, the open source approach helps the agency collaborate with other developers in the pursuit of a better, more practical end product. The agency can call on the software’s developers and contributors to troubleshoot problems and implement solutions.
“Free software, support from all over the world—it’s an approach that works,” said McHugh. “All around, embracing this technology makes us operate efficiently and continue being wise stewards of our public dollars.”
The agency’s operating system is Linux, one of the first offered via open source. TriMet also uses open source options like Apache, Tomcat, MySQL, and PostGIS for its back-end servers and databases, as well as its IT development tools like the Plone content management system.
When selecting open source software, TriMet uses focused evaluation criteria to ensure the software meets its needs. Can the agency support and maintain it internally? Does it have an established developer base? Does it have support and maintenance options? Additionally, while there is no initial fee for the software, TriMet still calculates and compares “free” with the long-term operating costs and resources needed to use the software.
“If the software doesn’t fit, we don’t use it,” McHugh said. “It’s important we do our homework because, in the end, it’s all about will work for our customers.”
No Going Back
TriMet has built a reliable and efficient approach to its IT operations by embracing open source technology. Ultimately, though, it’s the agency’s customers who win.
“Open source has matured considerably since it first became popular,” said McHugh. “That’s why we’re seeing more and better software emerging. We’ve chosen to take advantage of it so we—and our customers—can reap the benefits.”