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Tracking Traffic Jams With Cell Phones 130

Posted by kdawson
from the eye-in-the-tower dept.
kaufmanmoore writes, "Companies and governments are looking to alternatives to expensive radars and road sensors to track traffic jams. Two Atlanta-based companies are aiming to use data from wireless carriers to mark how fast phones are moving and overlaying that with maps to calculate traffic conditions. One of the companies, AirStage, has already partnered with Sprint-Nextel and the Georgia DOT to cover Atlanta's notorious traffic. The plans raise obvious privacy concerns over the usage of the data of your cell phone's location and the accuracy of this data." From the article: "[The] systems rely on wireless companies allowing them to process the data from their towers that calculate the position of each phone about twice a second when it's being used and once every 30 seconds when it's not. [One company's technology] can track vehicles to within 330 feet without using Global Positioning System satellites. Its software is designed to weed out the difference between pedestrians and drivers, then crunch it into detailed color-coded maps that show average speeds along roadways."
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Tracking Traffic Jams With Cell Phones

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  • Superman (Score:3, Funny)

    by Esion Modnar (632431) on Sunday November 05, 2006 @08:27PM (#16729721)
    If he had a cellphone, this could really screw things up.
    • If he had a cellphone, this could really screw things up.

      Here in Atlanta, in whatever traffic condition, jam, whatever it is, you will STILL see someone on a cellular phone, weaving and going about 90MPH.

      By the way, Atlanta is already well-covered. Lots of people whom I know make use of this map [georgia-navigator.com]. I wonder what the GDOT could have up their sleeves with this project.

    • Leatherface had a cell phone, he could, too... Oh. wait...
    • Dang. For a second there I thought the head line said "Jamming Cell Phones in Traffic".
    • by caluml (551744)
      I've been tracking my location with this technology, and making it available on my webpage [calum.org] for years. It's not accurate enough to determine the speed you are travelling though (I made sure of this first!).
    • Even if Superman isn't visiting a city street near you a cycle courier could confuse data, they all carry mobiles and they are the fastest (human) in the city.
  • Now we can pay absurd amounts of money per month for service, and get all our rights to privacy stripped away! Heck yes!
    • by Mr Z (6791)

      I'm not sure I see an issue. The subscriber motion data would be reported in aggregate. It's not like someone could hop on a website and see that subscriber 214-555-1212 is doing 80 in the show-off lane. And it's not like it's any sort of proprietary marketing data either, such as your personal preference for pimento loaf. It really is pretty much the same data they're collecting from road sensors, as long as the data's aggregated and reported as totals.

      • Well yes, you can believe that, but being cynical will tell you otherwise. What are the chances that these figures aren't eventually going to help the US track down its 'terrorists'. It's just another carte blanche in the government's possession.
        • by Mr Z (6791)

          Actually, law enforcement can subpoena individual subscriber location records and updates already, so that line has already been crossed. They typically do this for missing persons cases and emergencies and so on, as I recall, but I'm sure it can be (and is) used for other purposes. The part they haven't done yet (and I don't think this can provide as yet) is a database of where every subscriber has traveled that can be queried ex post facto. That's the truly scary end point.

          --Joe

          • by Talchas (954795)
            As long as they have to get a subpoena, then its ok - thats how the system is supposed to work.
      • by msromike (926441)
        The difference, as I see it, is that road sensor data is not personally identifiable. The position of your cell phone is.

        There are plenty of privacy issues attached. Where you drive on a daily basis could be calculated and cataloged. An alert could be set for when ANYONE leaves their "sandbox." The alert would not have to be immediately attended to by a person. It could simply be a matter of assigning more computing resources until a higher threshold of suspicion was reached. Finally a human could hav
        • by cayenne8 (626475)
          I can't imagine why tracking traffic jams are so important....at least to the detail they're wanting to do. I mean, jams are a fact of life...they happen during rush hours.

          What the hell are they really going to do with all this information....we already know this stuff. Build more roads...there, simple.

          I can only see this as a new step to traffic...and to auto-generate new revenues from more traffic tickets.

          • Actually, tracking which people take which exit and entrance ramps could help computer models used in designing the roads. It's not just about building more and bigger roads. You have to make sure to build the *right* roads. Let's say there's a certain exit ramp on the left that is frequently taken by people entering 1/2 mile earlier on the right. That might be more useful to the traffic engineer than just knowing two numbers: how many take the entrance ramp, and how many take the exit ramp.

            In Houston,

          • I'm going to guess that you've never lived in an area with really bad traffic. In areas where the roads are really overloaded, it affects your travel in the same way that the weather does. If traffic conditions change, you need to change your route, or you risk being stuck in a jam for hours.

            You don't want a traffic monitoring system to measure usual rush-hour traffic, since as you point out, it's reasonably predictable, but what you need to know is when something happens -- usually, an accident -- that wou
  • It seems we should turn off the cell phone when not using it. If you must be contactable at all times, get a one-way numeric pager. You shouldn't be using the cell phone while driving anyway!

    -r

    • It seems we should turn off the cell phone when not using it.

      Nah, go the other direction: let's have every vacuous twit in North America calling every other one while driving, and then start cascading the accidents to the point that nothing moves.

      This will trivialize the traffic analysis problem.
      • by tftp (111690)
        let's have every vacuous twit in North America calling every other one while driving

        You are too late with this plan.

        • by cayenne8 (626475)
          Well, if they implement this, as a sprintpcs customer....till my contract runs out, I'll be shutting off my phone, and taking the battery out while driving.

          I paid too much for my radar detector, and CB to just get an automated speeding ticket by cell phone. I know this first one can't resolve to get you yet...but, they will.....they will.

          And we all know how the cops and govt. would salivate over automating the "collect and serve" practices of today.

  • I'd be interested if somebody has done a study to determine how much additional throughput is gained by giving X% of drivers congestion information. My guess is it would do more to reduce the variance of travel times than it would to reduce the average travel time.
    • I'd be interested if somebody has done a study to determine how much additional throughput is gained by giving X% of drivers congestion information. My guess is it would do more to reduce the variance of travel times than it would to reduce the average travel time. It would depend entirely on the amount of traffic. In god-awful places like the Los Angeles area, knowing there's an exceptional traffic jam doesn't help, as any and all alternate routes are already filled to capacity under "normal" conditions. I

    • I'd be interested if somebody has done a study to determine how much additional throughput is gained by giving X% of drivers congestion information. My guess is it would do more to reduce the variance of travel times than it would to reduce the average travel time.

      It would depend entirely on the amount of traffic. In god-awful places like the Los Angeles area, knowing there's an exceptional traffic jam doesn't help, as any and all alternate routes are already filled to capacity under "normal" conditions. I

    • I'd be interested if somebody has done a study to determine how much additional throughput is gained by giving X% of drivers congestion information. My guess is it would do more to reduce the variance of travel times than it would to reduce the average travel time.

      As much as it seems a given that "You're going to have to drive home anyway", if you're in a situation where you can take advantage of the couple hours you'd otherwise spend in a traffic jam, being able to discover abnormal traffic ahead of time i
    • What's the use of reducing the average travel time if some days it takes you 9 minutes, and other days takes you 33? Doesn't matter if my average commute is only 16 minutes, I have to leave 33 minutes before work every day to make sure I'm not late. Some days I get there 24 minutes early. I'd appreciate anything that can reduce the standard travel time deviation.
    • by pilgrim23 (716938)
      You are starting with the assumption thatto study the traffic flow has a direct practical pupose. Silly person! This research is designed to be slick, ingenious, quantifieable, and aimed like a laser as the two basic needs: 1 a grant to cover it, and 2 a opening of that age old phrase somewhere warmly tucked into the conclusion: "This demonstrates the need for further study". Thus demonstrating the need for an additional grant.
  • by icebike (68054) * on Sunday November 05, 2006 @08:30PM (#16729743)
    If the phone companies strip identifying information from data one might be
    tempted to think there is no problem in making this information available.

    However, the privacy concern may not be limited to the ability track a specific phone, which they would probably require court permission to do.

    There are lots other uses, and abuses of such technology, such as finding where tonight's big party is located, which local watering hole is over-capacity, how much traffic the local liquour store (or street corner dealer) is getting.

    Even if such uses were void of personal data, they provide data about the location,
    whether that be a private home or a business.
    • by b0s0z0ku (752509)
      There are lots other uses, and abuses of such technology, such as finding where tonight's big party is located, which local watering hole is over-capacity, how much traffic the local liquour store (or street corner dealer) is getting.

      If you're worried, turn off your cell phone. If you're *really* worried, remove the phone's battery. I keep mine off while driving anyway because I tend not to want to be disturbed nor tempted into picking up a call *now*. If they need to, clients can leave a voicemail,

      • by icebike (68054) *
        > Cell phones can be turned off if the user doesn't wish to be tracked.

        You managed to miss the entire focus of my post in your rush to reply.

        I was commenting on the fact that I, You, We, may allow violation of privacy of other entities merely by walking in with a cell phone, EVEN IF our personal identity were protected by the cell phone company.

        When 400 phones show up in a club with a capacity rating of 350, can cops and fire marshals be far behind?
        • by b0s0z0ku (752509)
          When 400 phones show up in a club with a capacity rating of 350, can cops and fire marshals be far behind?

          This system is claimed to have a 300-foot resolution. Not real useful in telling which building exactly people are in, nor if they're inside or standing outside having a smoke.

          -b.

          • by Venik (915777)
            Well, today it's 300-foot resolution and tomorrow they'll deploy some new electronic gadget and it'll be 3-foot resolution. By that time this cell phone-snooping practice will be established and in use by your friendly neighborhood Homeland Security folks, among others. So we are talking about a general principle here, not about the performance of specific hardware they have today for tracking cell phones. Who knows, they may already have equipment capable of higher accuracy, but they choose to keep it unde
        • So you're saying the highway has a right to privacy? I understand the spirit of your assertion, but the technology already exists--phones are already tracked and have been for years. This simply puts that data to use. The system is no good for crowd control--not at 100 meter resolution. The potential for abusing that data has existed for years and will continue to exist.

          There's nothing wrong about a system that indicates that there are x people within 100 meters of point y. There is very little real
        • by pedrop357 (681672)

          When 400 phones show up in a club with a capacity rating of 350, can cops and fire marshals be far behind?


          Nope. I usually have two on me-my company issued Blackberry and my personal cell phone. I know lots of people who have two phones with them.
        • by jabuzz (182671)
          Putting to one side the issue of whether it is currently possible, is it such a bad thing if the police and other relevant parties get notified if a club has to many people in it? Now assume that you are in the club, and a fire breaks out and there are to many people to evacuate in time and you are seriously injured as a result. This is the USA you would be suing everyone in sight, including the police.

    • The data needn't be the phone locations itself.
      It could simply be an area map showing density and flow, kind of like a windspeed chart [bbc.co.uk] on a weather map.
      • by TFloore (27278)
        It could simply be an area map showing density and flow, kind of like a windspeed chart on a weather map.

        The problem with that is the required resolution of the chart to be useful. For a windspeed chart, your grid size can be fairly large, and still give useful information, squares a couple hundred meters on a side in cities and larger than that outside of major metro areas.

        For a chart of cellphone travel as a representation of driving speeds... your grid size has to be half the width of the road. Road traf
    • by jdcope (932508)
      My state, (Oregon), is already testing a GPS system. They want to track us for road taxes. Apparently our gas taxes arent enough, especially with so many people purchasing hybrids.

      If they decide they want it, then we all have to get a "little black box" installed in our cars.
      Some suspect they will also start charging us "congestion taxes" as well. The receivers will be at the gas stations, and will assess your mileage and add the taxes to your bill when you purchase fuel.

      Talk about a "slippery slope"!
    • Sure, there are legitimate uses -- but where are we hearing that we're going to have access to them? So far all I hear (and I could just be paying too little attention) is story after story about governments and corporations watching us, with no transparency in the other direction because we want "privacy." David Brin's book "The Transparent Society" presented a society with ubiquitous monitoring activities like "Is the pub busy? Is there someone in that alley?" as a reasonable alternative to the entirely-o
    • by wesuilmo (1023477)
      My wife's company is involved in this technology in Illinois. I've seen the data and all identifying information is stripped. All they see is a time stamp and location.
  • So, how does one differentiate between pedestrians and cars in a traffic jam?
    • The pedestrians are moving.

      *ba-dum-CHING*

      ... okay, actually, this is pretty easy. If you can get them to only pay attention to certain streets (like 75/85 or whatever I-number you like), then pedestrians are, if anything, moving perpendicular to the flow of traffic.

      All things considered, I was always told I could be tracked by my cell phone, and I consider it a safety feature more than an invasive detail. And considering I'm a liberal, that's saying a lot.
      • by Misch (158807)
        What about a paralell feeder road that has pedestrians walking along it?
        • Seems simple enough to me. If there is a traffic jam, the cars and the pedestrians will both be going slowly. In regular traffic you will see some phones moving slowly and others moving rapidly. The fastest moving phones are the ones of interest to you for traffic monitoring.
    • by Jerf (17166)
      If there are signals travelling 80mph and signals travelling 4mph (and that's a good run/jog), then clearly the flow is at 80 mph.

      If there are only signals travelling 4 mph, then clearly the traffic is stalled. Figuring out exactly which signal is which isn't important.

      Pedestrians aren't the problem. The problem would be a parallel street within the error margin (common because highways are often basically run right over old popular routes, and sometimes the old popular routes are still there, so you can ge
      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        Also... roads don't change their location (except during a 10.5 in California). Overlay movement data to road maps. Picture cell phones in dots on a screen. If you see a flow of dots on a screen, moving at > 20mph at any point in time, that's a road. Track one dot; if it slows down and then goes > 5mph, it's still on a road. If it stays under 3mph while others move faster, it's now a pedestrian or otherwise disqualified from the flow.

        Privacy issues are not as bad as people think; anyone with a GP
    • "So, how does one differentiate between pedestrians and cars in a traffic jam?"

      Outside of L.A. you could determine that by whether or not they're on a sidewalk.
    • by kramulous (977841)
      I seriously doubt that their accuracy is 330ft. I've written code that triangulates my phone to within 2 metres and this is only knowing the location of some mobile towers.

      This said, you can overlay the "bleeps" onto a road map and use some funky edge detection software to derive all.
  • How long 'til it's used to ticket me for speeding without the hassle of actually putting a cop at the corner?
    • We already have Speed and Stop Light enforcement via cameras.....
    • after the cell phone Companies stop rapeing you for the data bill. But this will not even get to that point with you havening to pay $0.05 a kb.
    • This is being done in Houston right now using the RFID toll road tags. http://traffic.houstontranstar.org/layers/ [houstontranstar.org] However, the second they start writing tickets, all of Houston dumps the RFID tags, and they have to hire a LOT of toll both operators. The same thing will happen to the phones. The phone companies will not cooperate with anything that will encourage people to turn off there phones.
    • What a good idea, it would catch more ciminals, without the expense of police manpower or the installation of speed camera's.

      However all it would prove is that your mobile phone was traveling at speed, whos to say that phone was on your person or in the car that you was driving.
  • Wow, this might just be a record. Maybe not all exactly the same thing, but still the same idea :)

    http://yro.slashdot.org/article.pl?sid=05/11/19/14 3247 [slashdot.org]
    http://yro.slashdot.org/article.pl?sid=06/08/10/23 37259 [slashdot.org]
    http://hardware.slashdot.org/article.pl?sid=05/11/ 01/159241 [slashdot.org]
    http://yro.slashdot.org/article.pl?sid=05/11/19/07 45248 [slashdot.org]
    http://slashdot.org/article.pl?sid=02/12/30/124324 7 [slashdot.org]
    http://slashdot.org/article.pl?sid=05/10/16/076217 [slashdot.org]

    Congratulations Slashdot, on having sextuplets (though maybe there are other, lost s
  • by Pink Tinkletini (978889) on Sunday November 05, 2006 @08:39PM (#16729813) Homepage
    How many times does this article need to be duped on Slashdot?
    1. Tracking Traffic Jams With Cell Phones
      http://yro.slashdot.org/article.pl?sid=06/11/05/22 20211 [slashdot.org]

    2. Tracking Your Cell Phone for Traffic Reports
      http://yro.slashdot.org/article.pl?sid=06/08/10/23 37259 [slashdot.org]

    3. Baltimore to Test Cell Phone Traffic Monitoring
      http://slashdot.org/article.pl?sid=05/11/19/143247 [slashdot.org]

    4. Cell Phones to Monitor Traffic Flow
      http://slashdot.org/article.pl?sid=05/11/19/074524 8 [slashdot.org]

    5. Using Cell Phones to Track Traffic
      http://slashdot.org/article.pl?sid=05/11/01/159241 [slashdot.org]

    6. Tracking Cell Phones for Real-Time Traffic Data
      http://slashdot.org/article.pl?sid=05/10/16/076217 [slashdot.org]

    7. Finns To Use Cell Phones To Monitor Traffic Jams
      http://slashdot.org/article.pl?sid=02/12/30/124324 7 [slashdot.org]

    8. Using Cellular Traffic to Monitor Traffic Jams
      http://slashdot.org/article.pl?sid=02/06/13/042822 9 [slashdot.org]
  • ...they track how many traffic jams are a result of cell phones?
  • Its software is designed to weed out the difference between pedestrians and drivers, then crunch it into detailed color-coded maps that show average speeds along roadways.

    I doubt they even have to employ this software in LA. From what I hear, nobody walks in LA. (I won't be fooled by a cheap cinematic trick, It must have been just a cardboard cut out of a man, Top-forty cast off from a record stand.)
  • When our presence, our body is being used for commercial gain we should be getting a cut.... a kickback for opting in to be a part of the service. Cellular companies nickel and dime us to death with various 'services' that should be part of the standard package and then they get to resell us as data to some 3rd party without giving us something back??? I say no.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by YrWrstNtmr (564987)
      I say no.

      We don't care. We don't have to. We're the phone company.
      • by qzulla (600807)
        Arrgh!!!! Leave me alone!!!

        Johnny Fever
      • This is where a simple website which details a peaceful demonstration comes in to play.... let people know what's going on, set a date and on that date everyone simply turns their phone off or leaves it at home. This will demonstrate that we the users of the phone have the power to allow this type of thing to happen and the right to deny it.

  • ...for being used as one datapoint in the product they'll be selling their traffic-data customers?
  • Cool site that goes live tomorrow.

    mobi.traffic.com [traffic.com]

    I imagine this won't survive Slashdot, but please destroy it(I need some numbers:-). This is not meant for a web browser to all people who will say that it looks ugly in Firefox.
  • It should be easy to weed out the cars and pedestrians. The cars are the ones that are stationary...
  • by Lethyos (408045) on Sunday November 05, 2006 @09:54PM (#16730293) Journal

    “Causing Traffic Jams With Cell Phones”

    Once someone has an accident you can all report the incident and resulting congestion right away!

  • Someone needs to come up with a checklist for why [someone's technical solution for avoiding traffic jams] is [impractical/unworkable/unacceptable] like I have seen here on Slashdot for spam. It seems we constantly hear about some new proposal for eliminating traffic jams, yet none of them ever come to fruition. I'll throw out some general reasons why:

    1. The solution generally assumes that everyone opts-in. This is impossible. Not everyone is going to buy a new device to assist in traffic tracking. If an ex
    • by kramulous (977841)
      I'm sure their accuracy is far greater than 330ft ... they just don't want to alarm people [insert snigger here]

      I believe this information would be useful to the signal processing to provide feedback to the algorithms determining the length of time traffic lights stay at a particular colour. This helps automate the process given that the edge detection algorithms used to process the images coming from traffic cameras is far more expensive and determinate of the watching control person [dull job]. The "tu
    • by LordEd (840443)

      1. The solution generally assumes that everyone opts-in. This is impossible. Not everyone is going to buy a new device to assist in traffic tracking. If an existing device, not everyone is going to have that device.

      My impression of the technology is no new devices need to be bought by the cell owner. If anything, it would be at the cell company. I believe it uses signal strength triangulation [techtarget.com] to determine position.

      2. The tracking accuracy of the device or measurement system is poor. Look at this article.

  • Quick, take down the news story about traffic jams by sending them too much traffic!
  • by LindseyJ (983603)
    That this is at least the 8th time I've read this story wouldn't even be so bad if it didn't attract the tinfoils like flies who post the same comments in every one.
  • As somebody who current lives in Atlanta, I'm still trying to figure out how this is going to benefit me. The traffic question in Atlanta isn't one that can be solved by planning alternate routes around large traffic jams. The problem here is that the traffic is everywhere and at the right (wrong?) time of day there really is no good alternate route that isn't congested. Atlanta growth has far outstripped its ability to build the necessary road infrastructure to handle the traffic. What they really need
    • by tweek (18111)
      The problem with Atlanta is that some dumbass decided that taking two interstates and merging them together downtown was a grand old idea.

      Then a new group of dumbasses decided that the problem wasn't fucked up enough and they decided to throw a major highway into that merge as well.

      Depending on when I leave the house in the morning, it can take me 45 minutes to an hour to go from Northridge on 400 to 14th street where I exit. God forbid someone spills a coke on the road in which case that commute is now 2 h
    • by jabuzz (182671)
      Building yet more roads is the solution to the traffic problem? That's been tried a 100 times before and it never *EVER* works.
      • by RESPAWN (153636)
        You may be right. According to Wikipedia I-75/85 (locally called the Downtown Connector or just The Connector) is already one of the widest sections of freeway in the world at 16 lanes at one point. That said, an outer loop much like the Beltway in Houston would likely eliminate a lot of the traffic for people who don't live in the center of the city and don't have to travel through the center of the city -- it's certainly better than some of the other proposed plans, such as the one to widen I-75/85 to 2
    • by joeboston (989841)
      For me, the value of this type of service is not in eliminating traffic (which is literally impossible in many areas including Atlanta), but rather knowing exactly how long it is going to take me to get from point A to point B. Being in traffic only bothers me if it is going to make me late for something. If I have plenty of time, I can just relax, listen to my ipod and try to get out of the way of the raging hotheads who are late. I am not interested in what highways are currently green, red or yellow. I w
  • Its software is designed to weed out the difference between pedestrians and drivers

    So how does that work? Any sufficiently slow-moving vehicle is indistinguishable from a pedestrian. Hell, sometimes pedestrians are moving faster than the traffic.

    Although it's difficult to say whether or not it's even necessary, since if all phones in a certain area are moving at 2-3MPH, it's more likely due to traffic than, say, no cars on the road. Maybe not at 2AM (except on New Years), but that shouldn't be hard to ac
    • If two phones are moving down the same street and one is going much faster than the other, then you can probably assume the slower of the two is a pedestrian.

      If a phone is moving the wrong way down a one way street then it's a pedestrian (or elderly driver)

      Pedestrians tend to move at a much more regular speed in urban areas. Sure they have to stop at lights, but they keep moving steadily whereas traffic jam traffic is usually stop/start.

      Once you've identified a phone as a pedestrian then you can exclude it'
  • by qzulla (600807)
    Now I need to make a tin hat for my cell phone.

    qz
  • Great. It's bad enough that I just got a $400 ticket issued by a camera, but now my phone is going to be able to give me speeding tickets, too?
  • CellPhone: You are moving faster than the average vehicle at this time.

    Driver: Yeah....coz i gotta pee....n my home is still 10 miles

    CellPhone: You have been moving faster than average vehicle for more than 10 minutes. You are tagged to be a potential terrorist. A neutralizing missile is on its way.

    Driver: @#$%..i peed in my pants...am slowing down

    CellPhone: Too late. An F-16 is hovering to make sure to dont dodge the missle.

    5 seconds later....

    BOOM!!!

    The problem with missile guiding system boomed the F-16 i
  • So now the same cell phone that caused the traffic jam can help me avoid the mess? Brilliant!
  • shown to cause reposted article jams on Slashdot.

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