Open source advent calendar: the public transport timetable information

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This is an advent calendar for techies. In the fully commercialized digital world, almost everything belongs to a large Internet corporation. Their software is neither open nor free. As an alternative, there is this small island of the open source world: software whose code is publicly visible and can be independently checked for possible security gaps and backdoors. Software that can be freely used, distributed and improved. Often the drive for work is simply the joy of providing something useful to society.

Short portraits of open source projects will be published on heise online from December 1st to December 24th. These are about the functions of the respective software, the pitfalls, the history, the background and the financing. Some projects are backed by an individual, others by a loosely organized community, a tightly managed foundation with full-time employees or a consortium. The work is entirely voluntary, or it is financed through donations, cooperation with Internet companies, government funding or an open source business model. Regardless of whether it is a single application or a complex ecosystem, whether a PC program, app or operating system – the diversity of open source is overwhelming.

Public transport is a one-person project with a small community. The Android app shows that a successful open source app can be operated even with very lean structures. Öffi is a timetable information for Android smartphones. The app is available in the Play Store, in the Amazon Appstore, in the Open Source Appstore F-Droid and as a direct download. The F-Droid version is expressly recommended by public transport. Developer Andreas Schildbach cannot say how many people use public transport because he does not track the app. He estimates the number of downloads to date at just under 10 million. The source code is under a “GNU GPL v3” license.

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In Germany, public transport covers the Deutsche Bahn network and almost all regional and local transport, as well as those in six other countries (Italy, Belgium, Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Poland). In Austria, nationwide and regional transport can be accessed across the board, in other countries only regional and local transport (e.g. in the Czech Republic, Spain and Ireland).

Elsewhere, however, specific traffic plans for individual cities are available (in France only Paris, in Switzerland only Zurich and Lucerne). The app lists a total of 20 countries, in addition to 16 European countries, the USA, Australia, the United Arab Emirates and Nicaragua.

If you are installing the app for the first time, you may be confused: Instead of just one, it generates three screen icons. Various functions can be controlled directly via the: “Public transport connections” is the classic timetable information: a colorful bar chart presents travel options; you must first select the relevant transport network. “Public transport stops” shows nearby stops. “Public transport network plans” can be used to view maps of individual transport networks.

In the settings, you can select a priority when traveling (fast connection vs. few changes vs. short walk) as well as the walking speed. You can also specify that you want to have barrier-free routes displayed.

Public transport is developed by Andreas Schildbach. A second project by the Berliner is the decentralized open source app Bitcoin Wallet. The app was a typical case of “scratch your own itch”, Schildbach tells heise online: “I was new in Berlin twelve years ago and found the local public transport network to be comparatively complicated, with the multiple intersecting underground and suburban trains. Lines. Not to mention buses and trams. It’s always easy to get from A to B in Berlin, but what is the best route? “

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He was inspired by an existing iPhone app, “Fahrinfo” by Jonas Witt. He had a single screenshot of it and started: “So I hacked together a first version in two days – only for Berlin at the time.” The response was so good that he soon added other cities and countries. The first public transport version appeared at the beginning of 2010.

In July 2018, public transport was involuntarily in the headlines: Google had thrown the app from the Play Store. The company was bothered by the fact that a version that could be installed outside of the Play Store had a donation button. Two months later, the app was allowed to return. When asked to what extent there had been further communication with Google, Schildbach replied: “I can only say that Google Germany was not happy that ‘Google international’ simply threw out the app without warning. That gave them quite a headache . “

A few days after being kicked out, he released public transport as open source. He had been planning to do this for a long time, according to Schildbach, and the dispute with Google was the decisive factor in finally taking the step.

Public transport was not only struggling with Google. Many transport associations and companies like to work with public transport, says Schildbach. But with some there are problems. They have no interfaces or they refuse to be integrated. Public transport cannot be used in Saarland, the app says: “Not available because the saarVV asked not to be included in public transport.” The situation is similar for four Austrian federal states.

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Schildbach has outsourced the connection to the backend systems of transport associations to a separate project: Public Transport Enabler. On the project’s github page, Schildbach lists 36 contributors. So there is a small community.

On the public transport website, Schildbach cautiously asks about donations. In principle, public transport is a voluntary project by an individual developer. He never thought about monetization, says Schildbach. He also never bothered about public funding: “That only costs time that I could put in public transport.” How many hours Schildbach spends a week in public transport, he couldn’t say: “I don’t do time tracking, why do I do a volunteer project?”.

The work on the series of articles is based in part on a “Neustart Kultur” grant from the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media, awarded by VG Wort.


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