Open public information! NSW RailCorp insanity edition

What do we want on mobile phone? Public transport time table information. It helps commuters and saves the environment. Is there anyone who could be harmed? No, but provide a value opportunity and there is some moron ready to take it away.

According to this ZDNet report, Alvin Singh, who has developed Transit Sydney – an iPhone application that provides a train timetable for Sydney – took his application to the No.2 spot for travel applications on the iTunes App Store only to be sent a legal cease and desist notice from Rail Corporation NSW:

[DDET Read more]

“I advise that copyright in all CityRail timetables is owned by RailCorp,” said the email, which has been seen by ZDNet.com.au. “Any use of these timetables in a manner which breaches copyright by a third party can only occur through the grant of a suitable licence by RailCorp.”

This is a government organisation whose statement of values includes “We work hard to provide quality customer service” and “We work within a just culture that will be honest and ethical” but want to put up barriers to get key information out to customers at no cost to them.

Singh took the legal route and here is what he found:

Asked under what terms a developer could get access to a “suitable licence” as per the email sent to Singh, Rea said such licences are currently unavailable to developers while RailCorp firms up its own mobile development strategy. A timetable application for iPhone and other mobile users is expected later in the year, he said, although it was not yet clear whether this would be provided for free or at a price.

Oh great. Suggest the only route is to do A and then so you can’t do A. Their own “mobile development strategy”? Come on. What is the harm? So long as Singh doesn’t claim to be official and customers are informed, then there is no problem.

Here is what RailCorp say:

“RailCorp’s primary concern here is that our customers receive accurate, up-to-date timetable information,” RailCorp spokesperson Paul Rea explained. “This includes details of service interruptions, special event services, track work and other changes.”

Well actually, is RailCorp worried that customers who know about timetables might complain when the trains don’t run on time? Hmm, maybe they want to provide ‘indicative’ timetables only.

[/DDET]

14 thoughts on “Open public information! NSW RailCorp insanity edition”

  1. I think a similar thing happened to Metro Sydney. I managed to grab it off the iTunes store when it was available (and it still seems to work, and is very useful on the odd occasion I’m in Sydney and catching a train), but it was quickly pulled. The same developers also did Metro Melbourne (which seems to be free at present, although I paid for it some time ago), so it seems that the Melbourne public transport bureaucracy is a little more open with its information than the Sydney one.

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  2. One of the modest benefits of living in Perth is that Transperth timetables work with Google Transit. This means that all our public transport (bus, train and ferry) timetables are integrated with Google Maps, including on the iPhone.

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  3. This kind of story would really run well on Today Tonight or Current Affair. And it would have CityRail jumping for cover.
    Time to go downmarket Joshua.

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  4. This has many parallels with the Nine Network vs Ice TV case, where Nine claim that their copyright covers not just a particular incarnation of a TV guide that they’ve produced, but extends to any rendering of the fact that a particular show of theirs is on at a particular time.

    That case is still before the courts, I believe.

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  5. Yes, I thought of Ice TV too. Judgment is pending in the High Court and may come as early as next week. There are some very positive signs that the case may redefine some key copyright concepts in a way that stops this sort of nonsense. (But there’s no predicting High Court decisions, and hoping for good outcomes there is a mug’s game. Also, the Cth parliament could reverse the outcome.)

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  6. Part of the problem is the way iPhone app distribution rules are quite limiting.  I second the Google Transit idea above, and also point out that the application licence rules for Android phones (the freely available Googly API) are much less restrictive. (Consider how Apple pulled the Whoopee cushion app without notice) The REAL problem is the lack not of theoretical timetables but actual estimates which would help travellers (do I walk or wait?).

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  7.  In the same way that individuals have the right of access to their own information so “the community” should have the right of access to its information and the fact that someone makes a dollar helping them access it is irrelevant.   Perhaps the privacy advocates can bring their skills and organisation to another worthy cause.

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  8. Why would anyone ever think of improving on RailCorp information service? That is crazy.

    All required information is already on the web and is accessible through iPhone browser: http://www.131500.info
    Try it for yourself. How hard that can be to find a best route from point A to point B?
    I tried it myself several times. All failed… oops… must be something wrong with me…

    I am just wondering… RailCorp is a government company, right? Are they financially independant and are not subsidized by government (tax) money? Not implying anything here, but if they use taxpayers money then surely taxpayers themselves should have a free access to information on RailCorp services…

    Let alone what I just said. Would a free access to the information be a win-win situation? Public would be better informed, RailCorp would spend less money on printing booklets and on developing software.

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  9. Dmitri,

    I’m sorry but I completely disagree with you. Good services exist because of competition. Competition leads to innovation and efficency. The world is moving towards open and protable data because it allows people to present it in new and innovative ways. You don’t see google closing off the google maps api now do you?

    Whether this particular application is better or worse that Railcorp’s offering is completely beside the point. Public data such as timetables and maps should not be a case for legal action and restriction.

    If I were you I would take a long hard look at what you are arguing about. If you are arguing that the iphone applicaiton is no good then don’t use it! But let others decide for themselves. If you are arguing that timetable information should not be publically available then I suggest your perspective is about 20 years out of date and not particularily Australian.

    Mike

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  10. Mike,
    I think you might have overlooked my last three paragraphs.
    I implied:
    http://www.131500.info is far from ideal, more over it is hard to use it at times.
    – if RailCorp uses taxpayers money (I am not claiming this) then we have even more rights for a free access to the information
    – opening access to timetable information would be a wise thing to have, all parties would benefit

    Yes, having an open and free access to information is a good thing.
    Making a legal case out of this is ridiculous.

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  11. Dmitri, sarcasm is a little hard to get across through text sometimes 😉

    After reading about this application, I wondered how difficult it would be from a programming perspective. Turns out, it’s not that hard. Here’s a similar page for Sydney Buses that I whipped up last night: http://electronsoup.net/php/buses/

    It pulls the data live from the Sydney Buses website and represents it in a mobile-friendly format. In fact, I used the 370 timetable just half an hour ago. Of course this is a blatant copyright infringement.

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  12. Tim, you are right about sarcasm; more over my language is not perfect.

    Yes, it is not that hard to provide a different view to the same data, and it might be very useful for many people.
    http://electronsoup.net/php/buses/ – good work and if you add a touch of CSS targeting mobile screen then you’ll have a good looking and ready to release product (e.g. see http://www.ibm.com/developerworks/opensource/library/os-eclipse-iphone/) 🙂

    Striking comparison:
    Goldcorp Inc – mining company. In 1999 they opened their very sensitive resources – geological data – to the whole world.
    RailCorp, 10 year later, protects timetables – a resource that is supposed to be published and copied as much as possible.

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