The Brooklynite Who Brought the Joys of A Transit Countdown Timer Into His Home

Categories: DIY, MTA, Technology

Ian Westcott
Westcott's own personal, magical, countdown clock.

When it comes to mass transit, the only thing New Yorkers really care about is punctuality. We'll elbow onto a packed bus and huff a stranger's armpit for thirty minutes -- and we'll do it gladly -- if it means we get to our destination on time.

But to do that, we need to know when that bus or train is actually going to arrive. That's why there's something magical about a countdown timer.

A 2011 MTA survey found that transit stations featuring countdown timers -- with their soothing, authoritative glow -- increase customer satisfaction in mysterious ways. Survey respondents liked the stations with timers better, but they didn't know why.

That little display holds a mysterious power. And no one knows that better than Ian Westcott, the 32-year-old Brooklynite who installed one in his house. Well, sort of.

Thanks to an open source data project from the MTA, Westcott was able to bring the wonders of a GPS-monitored bus countdown timer into his living room. With the help of what he insists, dubiously, was just a little simple coding and some off-the shelf-parts, Westcott built his own countdown system.

At the moment it's sitting on his coffee table.

It all started a month or so back when Westcott, an infrastructure engineer at a web startup, tapped into the MTA's new Bus Time system to solve a problem he'd been having. The problem, to put it bluntly, was the B70 bus.

Like a lot of new Yorkers, Westcott had a few options to get to work each morning. Which route was faster turned on the relative punctuality of the B70.

If the B70 was in sight when he stepped out of his apartment in Sunset Park, he could hop on, and shave some time off his commute. If it wasn't, he had to walk a few blocks to catch the D train. Trouble was, the bus, battling traffic like everybody else, rarely arrived at its appointed time. He needed to know when that bus was actually going to arrive, not just when it was scheduled to be there.

The only solution was real time tracking, somtheing the MTA has been working on installing for the past few years. When Bus Time was rolled out, the MTA decided to make the raw feed of location information available to programmers for their own, often creative, ends through an application programming interface (API).

An API is kind of like a virtual outlet. It allows programmers to plug into the raw data feed put out by the MTA's GPS system and use it to run custom applications or, in this case, an LED sign. It's the same thing that Twitter and countless other internet services do with their data, giving rise to all kinds of DIY third-party apps.

The MTA's decision to offer up the data is part of a trend in a lot of city agencies in recent years. The NYC Open Data project is a city-operated central resource that regularly posts a torrent of basic data sets on a huge range of statistics. For example, the page currently has a downloadable spreadsheet of every parking ticket issued in the city, all recent health code violations, and the location of every public telephone. Each spreadsheet is updated daily. It's a powerful tool not just for journalists and government watchers but also for tinkerers like Westcott.

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