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The popular app OneBusAway, developed at the University of Washington, keeps track of bus schedules in real time for thousands of  transit riders in the Seattle region. But increasingly those users have come to accept a little bit of, shall we say, flexibility in arrival times.

Ghost buses, routes with incorrect numbers, out-of-date stops. All these oddities are considered the price commuters pay for a free app that for the most part has been a boon for bus riders.

The growing problem: old data systems that record the location of buses are in the middle of a large switch to GPS, from a legacy system called Automatic Vehicle Location.

That switch and the seasonal smorgasbord of schedule “adjustments” have wreaked havoc on the programmers hunting down errors in the transit data.

“You’re seeing the dirty laundry of how an app is updated,” explains Dr. Mark Hallenbeck, Director of the Washington State Transportation Center, via phone. “You get to see the glories of big system implementation, and it’s just not a pretty process.”

Hallenbeck co-authored a blog post for the Seattle Transit Blog this week explaining all of the different errors the OneBusAway team is dealing with. He says the app accuracy will be getting better. “We assure you that everyone involved is very serious about finding solutions to fix the problems,” he writes.

The app’s creator, Brian Ferris, was hired away by Google last year. Local transit agencies have pooled money together to keep the app going.

Three people at the University of Washington work on fixing errors part-time. Each transit agency also has people working to address the errors. (King County Metro’s tracker app is also being affected.) Hallenbeck is hopeful the worst of the problems have been caught in the past week, but he says there could always be more problems down the road until the old data systems are completely updated.

Metro is scheduled to finish converting all of its buses over to GPS tracking in August, but the fixes will be ongoing.

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