Will Real-Time Google Traffic Maps Really Help?

Google is bringing its considerable heft to the hot traffic applications space, collecting speed and location information from mobile users and reporting its analysis of that data in real time through its Google Maps app. But will its participation make traffic apps better or worse?

In any crowdsourcing app like this one, critical mass is key, and delivering critical mass is a proven Google trait. But the big G is far from the only one chasing this burgeoning opportunity. Others — including Aha, TrafficTweet, Verizon Wireless and Waze to name a few — are already forming a traffic jam of their own. Even Google’s service is powered by a partner: AirSage. And as the New York Times pointed out, crowdsourcing apps are weakened by market fragmentation, because it divides the data.

Within the challenge of reaching critical mass is the challenge of getting people to volunteer to contribute data about how fast they’re moving in traffic at any given moment. Nokia, which is trialing its own traffic service, offers free access to the app as an enticement for participation. Google Maps’ mobile users will automatically contribute data when they turn on Maps, and some phones, including the Palm Pre and Android-based phones, will continue to report speed and location data even when Maps isn’t in use. It’s not hard to imagine any number of other potential incentive systems, from virtual coupon credits to inclusion in some kind of lottery. (In the long-term, it would help if cars automatically included anonymous reporting devices under the hood, but by the time those are abundant enough to be useful, we’ll all be commuting via jet pack anyway.)

The scale of Google’s audience might be enough, by itself, to build a better traffic app. If it isn’t, one would expect an aggregator to come along and try to pool together information from all the different traffic maps to create one superior one. It would benefit all the traffic app makers to eschew such a middleman and pool their data into one big real-time repository, though it would probably be difficult to convince them to share. Still, faced with the possibilities of (a) market segmentation constraining the usefulness of their service or (b) being crushed by Google, sharing might not seem like such a bad thing after all.

Google could take the lead in such an effort. Unlike the other app makers, Google isn’t relying on the traffic app as its chief source of revenue. And it has demonstrated its understanding of the benefits of this kind of openness. Most recently, for example, Google recently opened up its AdSense platform to rival ad networks, recognizing that the move gives its network a larger base of advertisers, which makes its customers happier.

There’s another reason to pool traffic data from more than one service: Giving users a heads up on routes to avoid is not as helpful as giving it both to them and to a transportation authority. Sure, drivers who are warned of traffic snarls reroute, thus avoiding further contributing to it themselves. But when used by the city, and combined with its resources, that data can be applied to more directly benefit everyone on the road. For example, Los Angeles County claims to have reduced commute times by 20 percent by manually changing the timing of traffic lights based on data collected by a network of fixed wireless devices at 1,000 intersections. Because the traffic-light operators can’t actually see the intersections they’re controlling, the county plans to deploy video cameras to those intersections. But the added data of crowdsourced applications would lend visibility far beyond the intersections.

Once the power of anonymous real-time location crowdsourcing is harnessed for traffic services, there are all sorts of other ways in which that data could be usefully applied. You might have enough time to dream up a half dozen or so the next time you’re stuck waiting in traffic.

Question of the week

Have you used traffic applications from Verizon Wireless, Google, Aha, Waze or anyone else? If so, is it helpful? Why or why not?
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