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Beating Traffic with Trained Mammals


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My favorite element of the electric grid is the method by which it gathers information about power outages. It seems the electric utilities have legions of trained mammals, and when power goes out, mammals in different areas press buttons, and the buttons make a bell ring at the utilities. For pressing the right button the mammals don’t get food pellets or avoid shocks. They get video games and cable television and overhead lighting and cell phone charging and air conditioning operation. Things like that.

Until we have the Smart Grid, that is, the way utilities get information about neighborhood power outages is for you and me to call and tell them about them. It’s cheap, but it’s effective. And it turns out that mammals pressing buttons is a solution with staying power. Consider traffic apps, which add levels of information to standard GPS data to create something like personalized GIS systems. One advertises that it covers “roadwork, accidents, police activity, and historical traffic patterns” – gathering data, that is, from civic traffic control, construction, and police information sources. Most work that way – they’re updated constantly through traffic sensors, traffic cameras, reports from traffic management agencies, and they supply anything from color-coded street maps (red streets are choked; green ones are fine) to turn-by-turn directions, based on predictions and such traffic information as they can weave in.

Waze, one of the most popular traffic apps, takes both the personal and the GIS elements further a step. Waze learns the habits of its user. Once it’s on, it’s paying attention to where you are at all times. Once you start moving at car speed in the same direction along the same route a few days in a row at 8 a.m., say, Waze asks you – out loud – whether you’re going to work. If you are, it starts thinking of your morning drive as your commute and suggests several options, of course using the information it receives from all the standard sources — and from the speeds and reports of other Waze users – to suggest which way to go. If you take yet another way to work, Waze works to figure out why, and to include that in its reports.

You can consciously report traffic problems, map errors, police presence, and other issues, and clickable points will appear on the map that you see – as well as those seen by other drivers in the area, since it sends reports to other drivers on your route. More, users can update maps actively too – the app won’t let you type while it’s moving, but users can wave a hand in front of their smart phone’s proximity sensor and the phone will ask what’s up. Saying “traffic” or “accident” or “police” will do the trick. Off the road in front of a screen, users can update maps in any way they need to: Waze is a lot closer to Wikipedia than a standalone product some company sells. Of course it eventually plans to make money by allowing advertisers to reach users: been 500 miles since the app saw you at a gas station? Local stations can bombard you with coupons. Oil change? Coffee? Potty? Same deal; nothing new there.

But whereas cities spend millions updating GIS maps to include layers of information, Waze and applications like it go back to the electric utility model of using trained mammals to do their reporting work. And because an awful lot of those mammals want the shared result to be useful, as Wikipedia shows, the work tends to be fairly good. Waze has gamelike elements to encourage users to spend more time connected, and it resists changes from new users until a few of their updates (hazards or traffic jams, for example) have been corroborated by other users. And yes – if you tell it you’re a passenger, it will let you type while you’re moving. Is there NOTHING you people will not lie to? If you’d lie to an app you’d lie to your own mother. Honestly.

Anyhow, Waze and its ilk are small miracles of interactivity. Though Waze does little lots of other apps aren’t doing, it’s mixing together a stew of sources – especially the crowd – to create a kind of information people want a lot. And though it doesn’t interact with transit apps like Roadify or walking sites like walkscore.com or parking apps like ParkPGH (which predicts, rather than just tracks parking) or Parking Auction (with which New Yorkers maximize the benefits of leaving a parking space), can such universalized links be far off? The HiveMap, linking transit, GPS, civic GIS data, traffic reporting, arts groups, and everything else is surely only days away.  That’s an app I’d buy.

Scott Huler About the Author: A writer who commonly explores science, culture, and the relationship between the two. Follow on Twitter @huler.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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