Streetsblog has a good post about the clear benefits of public agencies providing public access to their data:
If you live in Portland [Oregon], there are dozens of mobile applications that help fill gaps in transit information. You can check your phone to see when the next bus is supposed to come. You can plan a trip from one unfamiliar part of town to another. You can even have your mobile device buzz if you fall asleep before reaching your destination. For the basic stuff, there’s no iPhone necessary (although that certainly helps for information luxuries). Anyone who has a plain old cell phone with text messaging can ride the train or the bus with greater ease thanks to these apps.You’d think this was obvious, but in fact lots of public entities are much more withholding, for no good reason. For instance, if you live in New York City, where a far higher percentage of the population depends on public transit than in Portland, no such wealth of useful applications is available:
Simply put, the MTA makes it difficult to create applications using its data, even for a behemoth like Google with enormous reach. Developers have to acquire information from hard copies—CDs—that can quickly become out of date. Google’s own online transit tools are riddled with information that went defunct months ago, like bus routes down Broadway’s pedestrian plazas.I’m reluctant to beat up on the MTA, because doing so always means you wind up getting agreement from people who are simply opposed to mass transit, or who think the MTA’s problems stem from being unionized. (They don’t.) And I’m sure there are people inside the MTA who would love to make their agency’s data freely available to developers, the way Portland does.
Licensing agreements get hammered out one by one, and the MTA seeks a 10 percent royalty for any application that’s both sold at a profit and uses its maps and symbols. When talks break down, the resulting legal battle can turn ugly. Just ask Chris Schoenfeld, a developer and Metro-North rider who tussled with MTA intellectual property lawyers over the terms for distributing his mobile app, StationStops. A major point of contention: licensing fees and royalties.
I hope these people get their way one of these days, because it’s really dumb for public agencies to try to squeeze a few extra nickels and dimes out of selling data like this when, instead, they could be making it easily available to the public (as publicly-funded entities bloody well should), letting individuals devise ways to use it to enhance the services which are those public agencies’ reason for existing in the first place.