Traffic Problem Finds Cell Phone Solution

Phone traffic used as proxy for people traffic

The burgeoning population of road vehicles in Bangalore is widely seen as a sign of the change in its economic landscape. In the literal sense, though, the landscape has posed a string of issues for governance, the traffic police on the ground and the common man. But, as most analysts have stated in recent times, the lack of a single view among governing bodies is a critical factor that has compounded traffic management.

Given this backdrop, the Bangalore Traffic Information System is a fresh project that is expected to provide a far more accurate definition of the traffic problem. It could go some way toward developing a common view of the issue before arriving at micro and holistic solutions. Little wonder that M.N. Reddi, additional commissioner of police-traffic in Bangalore City, is excited about the latest public-private initiative.

Reddi researched similar projects that provide live information via text messages about traffic-congested zones, speeds of vehicles in certain areas and directions from one point in the city to another. As a city synonymous with India's IT industry, the technology application seemed almost inevitable in Bangalore, says Reddi.

The initiative is based on Mapunity Information Services, an application developed by the N.S. Raghavan Center for Entrepreneurial Learning (NSRCEL) at the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore. The geo-spatial application is written in Ruby on Rails, an open-source system, and uses the Postgis/Postgres database. In addition to these technologies, APIs such as Google Maps and Open Layers would be used to provide spatial information.

The NSRCEL offered its geographic information systems for the project and sought to work out a real-time monitoring technology based on cell phones. With support from Reddi's traffic police force at one end, Mapunity tied up with Bharti Airtel at the other to use its service and towers toward this end.

Destination mobility

The logic of the system is based on cell phone congestion, says Dr. Ashwin Mahesh, CEO of Mapunity. "The idea is simple: If phones are proxy for people, as in highway traffic planning in many parts of the Western world, the congestion of phones will be proxy for congestion of people." So, the system called for installation of micro-towers in select congested areas at traffic crossings, which was taken care of by Bharti Airtel.

The permissions to erect these towers, as well as the selection of the spots that would yield maximum data, were overseen by Bangalore traffic police. "As part of the administration, we drove the project and provided support to Airtel to put up the towers in extremely congested crossings," says Reddi.

"There are 700 new vehicles being added to Bangalore's choked roads everyday. Infrastructure cannot keep pace with it, so there has to be some monitoring mechanism. For BTIS, Mapunity provides the grey cells, Airtel is the facilitator, and the traffic police is the user of the data. With the information, we can take traffic-related decisions," he explains.

In effect, the information system monitors traffic densities -- as indicated by cell phone signal congestion -- to provide data in real time on the pattern of movement at different locations between towers. This forms the first step toward planned movement in the city roads. The data can be located geo-spatially at any time on a city map by Bangaloreans on the Web site or received by commuters through Short Messaging Service (SMS).

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.

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