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Mayor's office and MBTA 'challenge' local developers; will they heed the call?

Posted by Alex Pearlman  January 23, 2012 09:04 AM

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mbta boston apps.jpgBy Kyle Psaty

Some new phrases have really grown in popularity lately. "There's an app for that" is one, proliferated by a brand you might have heard of. Another is, "What apps should I get?" It's a popular question among pretty much everyone who just purchased a smartphone for the first time, immediately after turning it on, while staring enthusiastically at whomever is nearest.

App obsession is something we're all coping with, especially because those little programs make our lives easier in previously unimaginable ways. For example, Bostonians can pull out their phones, look up public transit directions, and watch themselves get there by bus, train, Hubway bike, or any combination of the three -- at least, that's what the City of Boston and the MBTA are hoping to accomplish with their new "MBTA + Boston Bikes Developers Challenge," which launched on Jan. 12.

"This initiative is really about providing customers with the ability to seamlessly connect and move between many of the great transportation options here in Boston," said Josh Robin, the MBTA's Director of Innovation. "Our goal here is to bring together data on those various parts of transportation seamlessly so customers can see the big picture of their transportation choices."

Standing in the way of all this app love is the fact that someone has to actually create new apps before we can download them and use them until our fingers bleed. That desire makes Android and iOS developers -- at least the ones talented enough to make something people really latch on to -- about as popular as quarterbacks on prom night. Realizing this truth, the MBTA and Hubway are not only awarding winners a free year's worth of rides, they're supplying their data free of charge, and there are no rules prohibiting developers from selling and profiting from their creations.

As it happens, all MBTA data (except Green Line data, which is still unavailable) have been available to developers since Summer 2010. From this information, 26-year-old Jared Egan created the first MBTA app, Catch the Bus, and then, a few months later, Catch the T; at one point, the programs were the no. 2 and no. 3 top paid navigation apps in the iPhone App Store."The success of Catch the Bus and Catch the T has been great for me," said Egan, noting that he's sold a total of 30,000 apps. (With a $.99 price tag, that's almost $30,000 in extra cash.)

Making that kind of dough on a pair of apps is no guarantee, though. In fact, according to an analyst at Deloitte, of the roughly one million apps currently available, only 20 percent garner 1,000 paid downloads. And the competition to be in that top 20 percent is only getting steeper: In the same statement, Deloitte suggested the number of smartphone apps available worldwide will double in 2012. To put that in perspective -- in the 30 minutes it takes me to commute from Green Street on the Orange Line to my downtown office each day, about 57 new apps are completed globally. (It's no wonder nobody ever really knows what to say when asked for app recommendations.)

Still, at least 10 local developers I spoke with seemed optimistic about the challenges, which include one for combining MBTA data with the newly available Hubway data, one for also including local food truck location data, and one for creating visualizations of all the trips Bostonians take each day.

"I can see both junior developers wanting to solve their own problems and take a stab at making their first app and senior developers jumping on the fact that people are probably willing to pay a buck or two for these apps, assuming they're rated well in the end," said Chris Keller, the founder-developer behind Boston-based email service

"I love that the MBTA and the city of Boston are taking an outside-the-box approach," said Nick Francis, a front-end developer and the CEO of Help Scout, a startup in the South End. "Developing these apps internally would not be a good use of public resources, yet opening up the APIs and promoting opportunities for developers to build on them is a win-win for them and the developer community."

Forty-four MBTA apps have been built since 2010, according to Robin, but some developers believe there's still plenty of opportunity to grab the top spot in the next year, especially on Android.

"There are two ways to stand out: One is to be first to market with a decent app that incorporates the new data," said Darius Kazemi, a front-end programmer and director of community development at the Seaport's Bocoup. "The other and, I think, the best way someone can stand out on Android is to create a really high-quality app with a great user experience. That's completely missing from the Android market."

To be sure, there are hundreds of competitive development competitions open to the public each year. International code-offs like the Rails Rumble, Apps for America, and Music Hack Day each bring out strong support from Boston-area developers. But of all the local coders I spoke with about the MBTA + Boston Bikes Developers Challenge, including both junior and senior level programmers, nobody is planning to participate, even Egan.

"I'd love to build these apps, but I'm working on another project that demands a lot of my time, and we're doing some cool stuff at PayPal now, so I'm going to stay focused on my existing work," he said. "Between work, my band, marathon training, and my other programming side projects, I don't have too much time."

Let's hope someone in the local development community does -- at least for the sake of all us app-hungry public transit-goers.

Photo by Josh Bancroft (Flickr)

About Kyle -- I'm obsessed with what's next, especially when it involves truly helping people live better, more fulfilling lives. I believe this is where creativity and creation become innovation. The founding editor of the online publication BostInnovation and a former staff writer for the New England Patriots, I'm lucky to now spend my days building a brighter future for consumer banking at PerkStreet Financial, where I also manage a daily blog. Follow me on Twitter @KylePs80.

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