Who Owns SF Muni Transit's Schedule Data?

PUBLIC INFORMATION — It's a good thing, writes Joe Eskenazi for SF Weekly, "we've got NextBus.com to tell us when to sprint to the station and when
to saunter. But the question of who owns the actual arrival and
departure data for the trains isn't as straightforward as you might

A representative of the city told us the data belongs to San
Francisco and "was generated by a publicly owned system using taxpayer
dollars." Along those lines, a Mission Bay programmer named Steven
Peterson feels that as a member
of the general public, he had as much right as anyone to create an
iPhone application called "Routesy" and present NextBus data in a
slightly cuter format. Yet the CEO of a two-person company — the other
employee is the COO—told us that he and he alone owns the data on
NextBus.com—and his company's angry e-mails persuaded Apple not to
feature Routesy anymore.

is a complicated argument because the fellow claiming he owns the
content of NextBus.com is Ken Schmier, the man who first conceived of
the Muni fast pass decades ago and invented—and patented—the
NextBus system in 1996. Drowning in red ink, however, Schmier sold his
company to a Canadian firm called Grey Island International Systems in
2005 for a piddling $700,000 and around $1.25 million in stock. Here's
the catch, though: While Schmier's current company, Next Bus
Information Systems consists of him and a COO named Alex Orloff—and
that's it—Schmier retains the right to serve as "the agent for the
commercial use of predictive data." What does that mean? Not even folks
employed by the city with many letters following their names are sure,
and it allows Schmier to claim he owns NextBus.com's data.   

In a nutshell, this is not how the city sees things. Judson True, the
spokesman for Muni, states unambiguously that the city owns the
Muni-related data on NextBus.com and NextMuni.com. When asked, then,
how Schmier could possibly demand to be paid for use of this data—as
he did with Peterson, and according to Peterson, the site
MuniTime.com—True says he'll leave answering that question to us. Make of that what you will. Peterson, incidentally, has contacted the Electronic Frontier Foundation to query about taking legal action against Schmier's company.

Meanwhile, SF Weekly
tracked down a source within city government intimately familiar with
the situation who spoke on condition of anonymity. He described
Schmier's current company as merely "a group of shareholders" that has
the right to be "'the commercial representative for the commercial
application of the data'
—whatever that means." What that has meant
so far, according to Schmier, is that he's sold banner ads on
—a Web site owned by Grey Systems, not him. The total
amount of money brought in this way since 2005: Somewhere between
$5,000 and $10,000.

"Mr. Schmier is trying to make a buck.
That is what we think," said the city source regarding Schmier's claims
to NextBus data. "Contrary to the information Mr. Schmier is feeding
the media … the MTA spent years getting this system to work. The
reason it took so long to roll out is it didn't work. Mr. Schmier had a
good idea, but he didn't have the technical know-how to make it work."

In the meantime, it warrants mentioning that the
nine-year-old contract between the city and NextBus is in the final
stages of a revision — our city source expects it to be completed
within weeks. It will be interesting to see what mention there is
—of Schmier and his "right to be the commercial representative
for the commercial application of the data."


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