LET THE DATA FLOW
Recently, I came upon Flightaware (via Brianstorms), a service that provides a real-time, dynamic map of the air traffic across the US. The images were so cool and mesmerizing. In fact, watching this animated loop of the air traffic flows over a 24 hours period was mesmerizing, especially since there was no underlying map at all...the traffic flow itself defined the contours of the continental US, Alaska and Hawaii.
You can even sort the aircraft in the flows in a number of different ways, including by aircraft type: Boeing, Airbus, etc.
Cool, I thought, and useful for aviation professionals, but not of great practical use to mainstream consumers.
The New York Times today has a great story about how several technology companies are assembling similar traffic pattern maps from the switched on cell phones of hundreds of thousands of folks on the roads. As the articles states:
"Several state transportation agencies, including those in Maryland and Virginia, are starting to test technology that allows them to monitor traffic by tracking cellphone signals and mapping them against road grids.
The technology underlines how readily cellphones can become tracking devices for private companies, law enforcement and government agencies - a development that deeply troubles privacy advocates.
These new traffic systems can monitor several hundred thousand cellphones at once. The phones need only be turned on, not necessarily be in use. And advanced software now makes it possible to discern whether a signal is coming from, say, a moving car or a pedestrian.
State officials say that the systems will monitor large clusters of phones, not individual ones, and that the benefits could be substantial. By providing a constantly updated picture of traffic flow across thousands of miles of highways, they maintain, cellphone tracking can help transportation agencies spot congestion and divert drivers with radio alerts or updated electronic road signs."
Now this is a service I would pay for either directly or with my attention.
It's an application as visually cool as Flightaware, with practical benefits for millions of individuals and business. Besides the real-time traffic planning benefits it offers, it can also be a great boon in a host of ways one can barely imagine.
Can you imagine these traffic flows overlayed on a Google or a Yahoo! map of an area you needed to be at this evening for a dinner meeting, compared to how the traffic looked like there as an average of recent history?
Obviously, the privacy concerns need to be addressed and the system secured for use of monitoring aggregated data only and not individual phones tied to specific identities.
Overall, a much cooler way to use mobile phones than using them to turn Japanese teens into chimpazees (via memeorandum).
One of the flies in the ointment for these traffic services is surprise, surprise, the wireless carriers. As the article explains:
"...there were critical hurdles. Chief among them, Mr. Tarnoff said, is getting the cellular carriers, which have been distracted with mergers and customer service problems, to collect and share the cellphone data...
Indeed, Cingular, which provides the data for the test in Baltimore, plans to stop making data available for traffic monitoring, according to a person briefed on the company's plans.
The person said Cingular was busy working on other projects and did not have the time and resources to devote to the efforts. Verizon Wireless, is considering providing this kind of data, according to a person briefed on that company's plans."
Now this is a new type of bottleneck I hadn't envisioned in my recent post on infrastructure "Bypass Bottlenecks". In fact it's ironic that the same Cingular with it's "it's my pipes" CEO Edward Whitacre, is dragging its feet here on the wireless side as well.
As loathe I am in advocating government sponsorship, in this area, national cellular data aggregation, especially if mandated and regulated as say, an FCC sponsored initiative, might be something to consider.
It may potentially yield as many unexpected and innovative services as the government's network of GPS satellites has proven to be for both businesses and consumers worldwide.
Instead of regulating the airwaves and spectrum, for which there is less need for government involvment due to technology innovation, the government might be helpful in coordinating the use of data for commercial, marketplace benefits.
Hopefully these speed bumps are overcome over time either through private market efforts and/or a combination of public and private initiatives. The NYTimes article again shows anecdotally how rich the potential array of services can be for mainstream markets once the data is allowed to flow.