Traffic problem finds cell phone solution

Phone traffic used as proxy for people traffic

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Currently, there are 150 towers that have been installed, of which about 70 have been put up by Airtel solely for this initiative. Further, cameras have been installed at critical points to capture live feeds. "We have installed up to eight cameras at various points. Essentially, we are looking at an object recognition algorithm and accounting algorithm that will look at those feeds in real time," says Mahesh, who also wants to develop various delivery platforms for information since the amassed data has several uses.

"Right now, it's on the Web and SMS. But, we'd like to create a product that can be used from radio stations and in hotel lobbies. It could be a plasma screen in the lobby with live feeds," he adds. This will benefit travelers, for instance, who can work out alternative routes if the common road to the airport is blocked. Large displays would also be useful at software technology parks because there are large numbers of movements originating and ending in such large complexes. While commuters can be aware of particularly congested roads that can be avoided, the traffic control room plans to use the data for better transportation route planning.

The broad agreement between the key stakeholders is that the traffic police department will facilitate the tower installation in congested junctions, Airtel will map the traffic patterns, and Mapunity processes the data to turn it into readable traffic information for the end user.

"We all had a congruent interest," says Mahesh. "For any telecom service provider, congestion means a drop off. Airtel wanted the network to reach into congested areas, too. They were interested in serving people in junctions where congestion typically takes place. They were coming up with micro-towers, which will have a limited footprint, serving only people in that limited area of the junction. It would not be handled by the overlying BTF layer that would otherwise handle telecom traffic. So, Airtel wanted a solution for call drops at intersections; the traffic police only needed to map people at the intersection; we could use these micro-towers to get our data," he explains.

The Web site was launched on June 1 this year, and carries detailed traffic and movement coverage for the eastern and southern parts of the city. In the next phase, they plan to extend the service to Bangalore North and West. Other services include safety instructions, information on roads and diversions in the city, level-of-service mapping, passenger information system, origin-destination studies and route optimization, among others. The service will remain free for a few weeks before becoming a paid service, paving the way for a strong revenue model for the Web site.

Two weeks into its operation, the Web site is getting about 4,000 requests on SMS every day. The numbers seem to be growing by about 5% everyday. The site has been getting another 2,000 people, some of whom inquire about new services. "The carpool service, for instance, is not operational. Yet, a few dozen have called in and shown interest in being notified when the carpool service begins," he says.

The long horizon

The biggest takeaway of the traffic information system has been the data on commuting patterns. Earlier, it could take months to do a physical survey of a few thousand households in a locality to study their commuting patterns. On the other hand, with cell phone signals, Mahesh says, "I can give you data about a million and a half households by tomorrow morning." By mapping movements onto a network and a dynamic capture system, transport planning has become not just faster, but more flexible.

"Cell phone signals provide very easy data feed. Companies can also use this data to ascertain major populated areas, work locations, heavy traffic roads, buses and other modes of transport," notes Mahesh.

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