4-page Partner Case Study - Posted 2/3/2011
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Firm Uses Cloud Services to Unify Data from Transit Systems, Improve Access to Schedules
Founded in 1999, EastBanc Technologies is a Washington, D.C.–based software development and system integration company that focuses on mobile application development, enterprise portal solutions, service-oriented architecture, and business intelligence for a diverse set of customers ranging from large multinational companies and government agencies to innovative technology startups. Having worked closely with one of its larger customers, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, to develop transit data applications, EastBanc Technologies engineers realized that the internal data used by all regional transit operators to monitor their transportation networks could be aggregated to help travelers plan trips across networks. The result is the Public Transit Data Community, a cloud-based, software-as-a-Service solution launched in September 2010.
Municipal transit authorities all over the world understand the power of a schedule. Perhaps no public-service agency spends as much time trying to figure out how to present complex information (such as public transportation schedules) in as simple a manner as possible in as many places as possible. Providing accurate data to every bus stop is no easy task. But by producing this simple piece of paper that is posted at every pick-up location, transit authorities have created a tremendous database of information that is extremely useful to their constituents—as long as all goes as planned.
Add some snow, a traffic accident, or a construction project, however, and the schedule is no longer accurate. Communicating these disruptions to citizens who rely on public transportation to get to work or to catch a connection to a long-distance carrier, such as an intercity train or plane, has always been a challenge.
||Using a cloud is a great way to jump-start a services business, because there’s no hardware to buy and no data center to lease.
Chief Architect, EastBanc Technologies
It should therefore come as no surprise that transportation authorities have eyed with interest the rapid proliferation of mobile devices as a way to let people know unanticipated changes in otherwise normal routines. Recently, EastBanc Technologies, a software development and system integration company based in Washington D.C., partnered with one of its customers, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), to develop a system that would extend information about a transit system beyond its immediate borders. This effort has led to the creation of the Public Transit Data Community (PTDC).
“Existing transit applications typically use data from only one source or one transport system,” says Bill Conforti, Vice President of EastBanc Technologies. “The idea for PTDC is to aggregate data from as many transit operators as possible, which is especially useful in the case of overlapping metro areas. New trip planning applications can help commuters traveling from local routes in D.C. to local routes in Baltimore, for example, with real-time visibility into all the regional routes and operators that connect the two.”
By exposing transit data for public consumption, EastBanc hopes to foster a development community that will both create new applications that capitalize on the value of intersystem transit data from the National Capital Region and encourage other regional transport authorities to make transit data available through PTDC.
Ultimately, such independently developed applications could help transport operators, such as WMATA, to improve transparency and system performance and to provide better service to passengers and increase ridership.
One of the biggest hurdles that small businesses face when launching a web-based service like PTDC is the high startup cost of the infrastructure needed to support the back-end processes of the service. So, EastBanc opted to develop PTDC as a cloud-based system by using the Windows Azure cloud-computing platform.
“Using a cloud is a great way to jump-start a services business, because there’s no hardware to buy and no data center to lease,” says Evgeny Popov, Chief Architect of Microsoft Solutions at EastBanc Technologies. “The cloud model makes it very easy to focus on development and roll out the services as easily as possible.”
Operating the PTDC system on a cloud-based, multitenant, software-as-a-service (SaaS) architecture allows EastBanc to keep costs down while providing the flexibility and scalability needed to bring aboard new data sources. “We want to make it affordable for transit agencies and operators to participate,” Conforti says.Solution
PTDC is a cloud-based SaaS solution for publishing mass transit data on the web in a variety of open formats for consumption by people and applications. The software and application programming interface (API) developed by EastBanc runs in Windows Azure and allows developers to easily integrate transit data sets from PTDC into original software applications that can be served to the public through the cloud for consumption on personal computers or mobile devices.
Easy to Use, Cost-Effective Technology
“We were interested in a Microsoft cloud services environment because we found that Windows Azure was convenient to use and gave us an easy way to build web-services applications and deploy them back to the cloud,” explains Popov.
||We were interested in a Microsoft cloud services environment because we found that Windows Azure was convenient to use and gave us an easy way to build web-services applications and deploy them back to the cloud.
Chief Architect, EastBanc Technologies
PTDC draws its data sets from disparate transit operators and hosts them in Microsoft SQL Azure, a cloud-based relational and self-managed database service built on Microsoft SQL Server technologies.
“PTDC allows transit authorities to achieve data transparency at a fraction of the cost of an internal implementation,” Conforti says. “At the same time, PTDC increases value by connecting public transportation agencies with a creative community whose applications will promote and enhance their services.”
“The real differentiator lies in the API, which our team developed, as well as in the sample applications that will help developers to create their own applications based on that data,” Conforti adds. Scalable and Flexible Service
The data made available by the PTDC website can support numerous applications, such as intelligent trip-planning software that uses real-time inputs—for example, vehicle positions, crowd patterns, arrivals, and incidents.
Real-time information from disparate transit organizations, including the DC Circulator and the WMATA Metrorail and Metrobus, is downloaded to the PTDC service as often as every 20 seconds.
PTDC data engines also collect static information, such as routes and schedules, daily. Combined, real-time and static data allow PTDC transit applications to access the entire transit environment comprised by the participating transit systems. Such applications could be designed to run on mobile devices, giving travelers on-the-spot visibility into their commuting routes.
The PTDC API provides access to transit data in various formats, such as Atom, JSON, GeoRSS, and KML. Compliance with the Open Data Protocol (OData) provides rich capabilities that independent developers can build into their applications. The system’s Data Collector Service receives an agency's data feeds and adds them to SQL Azure. Agencies can also manually upload data if they choose. As soon as the data is stored in SQL Azure, it is available to PTDC users through the OData API service.
PTDC’s Itinerary Evaluator Service uses proprietary algorithms to calculate the best routes between geographical points by using all available public transportation options, user preferences, and real-time data. The entire system (including Data Collector, SQL Azure, Itinerary Evaluator, and the OData API service) works on the Windows Azure platform. Using the Windows Azure platform resolves infrastructure maintenance and system scalability issues, regardless of the number of agencies providing data or the number of applications using the service.
“Developers can access our environment for free under our terms and conditions, and they can create their own applications, which they can provide for free or sell to the market,” Conforti says.Benefits
By using the Windows Azure platform to build and host PTDC, EastBanc Technologies has a rapid development platform that offers critical service assurance and scalability to support expansion of the service and enhanced access to route and scheduling information for citizens.
Integrated Transit Schedules
The primary advantage of PTDC over existing transit applications is that it brings together data sets from disparate transit operators that traditionally have been isolated.
||More and more agencies are realizing that their internal data has value beyond their walls, and this type of service allows them to maximize the value they can get from that data.
Vice President, EastBanc Technologies
“WMATA’s legacy trip-planning tools were not as effective because they only processed data from WMATA’s own transit system, and they couldn’t integrate data from outside operators such as Virginia Railway Express [VRE] or local bus lines, for example,” Conforti says.
Aggregating data from multiple operators not only enhances visibility into an entire region’s transportation landscape, making the resulting applications more useful, but it also increases the number of users and developers who want to consume the collective data sets.
“If every transportation authority does this [in isolation], there’s no leverage. But if you combine data from multiple operators in one metropolitan area, the potential number of users is much higher, so more developers will be interested in building on that,” says Popov.
Additionally, the ability to host and publish transit data as a third-party is critical to the value EastBanc can offer because it allows transportation operators to easily and affordably expose data to useful applications without having to manage the processes themselves.
“WMATA is in the business of running a transportation network,” Popov explains. “They’re not in the business of hosting data and fostering a developer community. PTDC enables transportation authorities to take advantage of a common service for publishing their data, so they can focus on their core business.”Rapid Development, Service Assurance
Using the Windows Azure platform to build and host PTDC keeps the entire system affordable for EastBanc while providing the critical service assurance and scalability the system will need to expand.
“We got a really good service-level agreement for our service, and we don’t need to maintain a data center ourselves,” Popov explains. “It’s cheap compared to the costs of a data center. And Windows Azure is scalable to handle the loads that we’re expecting on our API when we grow.”Enhanced Services for Citizens
“More and more agencies are realizing that their internal data has value beyond their walls, and this type of service allows them to maximize the value they can get from that data,” Conforti notes. “Their data is an untapped resource that can benefit citizens while potentially creating added value for them by exposing it to developers. If new applications from PTDC can make travel more predictable and stress-free, thereby increasing the satisfaction of travelers and encouraging them to travel more with little or no cost to the transit operators, that’s a major benefit to the entire market.”
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