By Jon Gales -- Last week I had the pleasure of meeting the folks at IntelliOne, a small Atlanta based firm that is attempting to corner the real-time traffic market by monitoring cellular data with software. Traffic monitoring today is a fairly low-tech business, but very expensive to provide. The most reliable data is given from mile-by-mile monitoring towers like Traffic.com and the DOT use. Since they are expensive, only large highways in metro areas are covered. In contrast, IntelliOne aims to provide live traffic information for where ever there is cellular service. Read on for how this technology works and when you can expect it to be available.
IntelliOne's service is based on exclusive data center level access to raw call positioning data. Since the service isn't public right now, the carrier partners haven't been announced. The positioning points are then placed over mapping data provided by TeleAtlas so that active calls that are moving on roads can be spotted fairly easily. Identifying information of the mobile customer is stripped before it gets to IntelliOne's boxes (which are actually co-located directly in the carrier switching center), but the company is still having to fight people's first reaction that the service is invasive. After AOL's recent PR gaffe of "anonymous" search data being released, it's easy to see why people get nervous. However wireless carriers have a huge vested interest in privacy and keep an extremely tight grip on anything going in and out of the switching station. IntelliOne's software gets an ID number and latitude/longitude, by comparing the position data points of records with the same ID with the time stamp, speed and heading can be calculated with some simple calculus. Stretches of roads are sliced into chunks and averages can be calculated for each segment. Data is delivered to the user within 2 minutes, much faster than with previous monitoring methods.
Besides being anonymous, the data isn't saved for any length of time (though it's probably still saved at the carrier level in a compressed form). In normal use once traffic speeds can be assessed, the data is dumped. Averages are saved for historical comparison, but the raw data is so bulky that it quickly becomes expensive to keep around--in the Tampa area alone there are around 5 billion data points processed each day. A slice of data for a ten minute segment of a day last week came in at 500MB (and that's just Tampa). Position data is updated twice per second during calls and about twice per minute while idle. Once IntelliOne has servers deployed around the country, terabytes of information will be generated daily.
One lucky break that IntelliOne got with its data collection method is that drivers tend to talk on the phone when stuck in traffic--their data actually gets more accurate when cars start to stack up. It's also safe to say that a stretch of highway with little to no cellular activity is smooth sailing, or in terms of their charts all green. Off the highway it's a little more difficult to get a good reading because of stop lights, but they're on the map and are averaged in for travel time estimates. Comparisons with GPS data show that IntelliOne's data is accurate to within 5mph on the highway. This often beats hardware based monitoring like Traffic.com, but the advantage is that it will work wherever there is cellular service--a much larger footprint than the competition.
It turns out a lot of people are interested in traffic information. From the DOT to homeland security to navigation system makers. IntelliOne plans to provide the information to anyone that wants it, it won't be launching its own service. Google could integrate this into their mapping product for example (earlier this month it launched traffic data on its Google Maps for Mobile app, but many users have complained about its inaccuracy). In my opinion the killer app for this data is for it to be integrated in with something like VZ Navigator. On phone navigation works well today, but the added benefit of it being able to route you around traffic in real time would be a huge boost.
The demo hosted in Tampa was based from a website. We took a drive looking for traffic jams while watching the system on a Windows Tablet PC connected to the internet via EV-DO. The website was for development purposes only. One of the most interesting screens I saw was a graph of all calls made during a small amount of time over the Tampa area. Each dot represents several calls. You can see the graph at right.
IntelliOne says they have talked with several carriers in North America, but can't say much more. While GPS-based navigation is limited to CDMA handsets, general traffic info could be provided to GSM phones. While that won't help you get to somewhere you've never been, it could still save you some time coming home from the office.
But we'll have to wait some time before anyone integrates the data. Currently the Tampa market is the only active area and IntelliOne is still busy tweaking the software. By the end of next year IntelliOne hopes to cover the top thirty markets and the top 75 markets by the end of 2008.