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iPhone app has public transit down ‘To-A-T’

By Dave Copeland
Globe Correspondent / November 9, 2009

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To-A-T is an application that uses an iPhone’s GPS feature to locate the closest MBTA subway or bus stop, and tell users when next train or bus will arrive.

But state transportation officials also like it for another reason: To-A-T did not cost them any money. Wonderland Development, based in Cambridge, developed the app using publicly available scheduling data the T posted on its website last spring.

“The beauty of releasing the data is it frees us from having to develop the applications ourselves,’’ said Chris Dempsey, an assistant secretary in the Massachusetts Executive Office of Transportation. “That’s expensive and something that we’re not very good at.’’

Transportation officials are promoting a contest they hope will result in even more data-based apps for commuters. The best ideas will be dis cussed at an all-day conference on transportation and technology Saturday at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The winners receive Charlie Cards good for a year’s worth of free rides on the T.

The conference is aimed at bringing together app developers, T riders, and transportation officials to figure out what types of applications would be useful and which ones they could live without. In addition to more sophisticated apps tailored to the iPhone, transportation officials want developers to create more basic functions, like an application that would provide schedule information via standard text messaging.

Dempsey and Joshua Robin, the transportation office’s manager of performance reporting, borrowed the idea of posting data online from transportation authorities in San Francisco and Portland, Ore. Other apps have been developed using state data, including one that estimates wait times at the Registry of Motor Vehicles.

Atticus Gifford and Lara Allard formed Sparkfish Creative in Cambridge this year specifically to invent iPhone applications. They have been working on Sparkfish full time since the summer and recently released an updated version of MassTransit, an iPhone application that gives users schedule information for nearby T stops. Before forming the company, Gifford worked at MIT and was a regular on the MBTA’s 47 bus. On a good day, the bus would save him 20 minutes of commuting time, Gifford said, but he was never certain when the next one was coming, which was frustrating.

“Once the [iPhone App Store was] announced last year, I waited for the MBTA to announce an app,’’ he said. “After a couple of months, I decided to just start working on a simple app for myself to track the 47. After a while it expanded into all buses, and then all MBTA transit.’’

Today, MassTransit is consuming most all of the Sparkfish creators’ time. Gifford said he originally expected resistance from the state when he requested data, only to learn the MBTA was putting all of its schedule information online.

“We’ve received lots of positive e-mails from our users, which has encouraged us to keep working on MassTransit full time instead of pursuing other projects and working for clients,’’ Gifford said. “We’re not going to get rich doing this, but it’s very satisfying to work on something that is making riders’ commutes a little better.’’