Saturday, August 02, 2008

Mobile Signals to Identify Congestion Zones

Recently, a company based in Bangalore, the Mapunity, partnered with India's largest cell phone network, Bharti Airtel, to gain access to records of every transaction on its system. Main goal of this venture was to devise solutions to urban traffic, at least qualitative real-time messages to inform the passengers on urban congestion levels and possible alternatives to avoid idling.

Methodology: Cell phones constantly relay data to local towers, even when they're not in use, so Mapunity can track the location of as many as 3 million (per city) in real time, giving the company a minute-by-minute snapshot of the city's traffic. When too many people crowd a given intersection, a red dot shows up on a map posted on the company's website. This information is also accessible by phone using designated codes for various junctions.

Traffic Information Systems are currently available for
1. Bangalore
2. Delhi
3. Hyderabad
4. Pune

It is important to note that this information service is not telling us how many people are on the road, but providing us with an indicator for traffic density along the corridors, in real time. Sometimes the corridors are congested not because of the number of cars or motorcycles on the road, but due to poor traffic management.

I think this is very innovative approach (as part of the intelligent transportation systems (ITS), see this article on ITS efforts in India) to use the mobile signals to track congestion and use that information, to guide the traffic flows via better traffic light coordination or inform the passengers before they plan their road trip (even saving 10 mins and idling on the road, means fuel saved and less air pollution to worry about).

At the institutional level, this information is very valuable in designating the congested vs non-congested corridors; which might help better coordinate bus service, where available and necessary. The information gathered, irrespective of the uncertainties involved (such as, this service using only one mobile network, not being able to fully differentiate between signals along the road with vendors or concentrated signals in a bus at a junction, some of which can be avoided over an average period) will provide qualitative assessment of the traffic flows in the city, information of rush hours, traffic speeds, and (over time) a database of information to analyze the traffic patterns for better urban planning.

An overview of possible interventions under ITS is available as part of the GTZ's Sustainable Transport Source Book Section 4E.

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