A couple years ago a new dedicated GPS device hit the market called the Dash Express. Dash planned to crowdsource their traffic data. Each Dash Express GPS unit reported location and speed back to the service. Dash then aggregated this data and pushed the results back to every Dash unit. In theory, users would get extremely current and accurate traffic data. In reality, the concept requires a large install base in your area to be effective. If I remember correctly, the Dash unit was nearly $400 at launch, and required a $14/month service plan. In November of 2008 Dash must have seen the writing on the wall, because they quit being a hardware company and started focusing on pushing their system of aggregating traffic data to other platforms and devices.
The concept has been revisited from time to time, and rightfully so, because it’s a solid concept. There is currently a mobile application called Waze that combines geolocation of friends/family, driving directions, maps, traffic data, and accident reporting into one app. The company claims to have a healthy install base in Europe but adoption in the US is still very low. Waze has taken a step in the right direction by being a cross platform application, so the potential install base is much higher than software tied to a single piece of hardware like the Dash Express. As far as execution though, Waze doesn’t cut it for me. At least on the iPhone, the UI is poorly implimented, service is slow, and the previously mentioned small install base keeps the true benefits of crowdsourced traffic from being realized.
This is where Google comes in. They have reached this space from the opposite direction. Google Maps for mobile devices already has an overwhelmingly large install base… a perfect source of information to build traffic data. The Google Blog recently laid out how they are using location data from mobile devices using Google services to build real-time data information for Google Maps users. Google Maps traffic data was recently expanded to secondary roads thanks to the abundance of information gathered from user data. The software that makes this happen comes bundled on Android devices and the Palm Pre, and is an easy download for Blackberry and Windows Mobile. I’m sure most people didn’t even realize they were contributing to the project. The Google Maps application on the iPhone doesn’t have the location reporting feature unfortunately, but I hope it will get added in a firmware update soon. Fortunately for iPhone users though, you don’t have to report data to benefit from it. iPhone users and desktop browser users alike will see the results of crowdsourced traffic data when they use Google Maps.
I know one of the big concerns you’re probably having right now: privacy. Of course there’s always a conversation about how much you should trust a large corporation like Google, but Dave Barth goes to great length to explain how Google is protecting user privacy in the Google Blog post, so please read through the last two paragraphs for sure.
If it’s not obvious by how much I’ve rambled about the subject in this blog post, I’ve had crowdsourced traffic data on my mind for years now, and I’m extremely excited to see it reaching the point where it can benefit a ton of users whether they’re aware of what’s going on behind the scenes or not. And really, I think the best applications of technology are those that don’t require attention or effort from the users in order for them to see the benefits.