Google’s been providing near real-time traffic flow data on highways for a while now by using data from traffic sensors embedded in the ground. I can’t say how many times Google Maps has helped me avoid a long(er) commute by showing where the traffic slowdowns were happening. But, when it comes to street traffic, we’ve been mostly on our own. Until now. Google is now pushing street traffic data to Google Maps on almost all smartphones – all of them except the iPhone.
Google engineers are the masters at data mining. They’ve been hoarding years’ worth of user behavior data on server farms scattered over acre upon acre in the US. And, with Google services permeating the mobile space, it’s only logical that Google would leverage the power of real-time crowdsourcing to improve their traffic data. Google has announced that it will be expanding their traffic reporting service to include “all U.S. highways and arterials.”
This is exactly the kind of technology that we love at Google because it’s so easy for a single person to help out, but can be incredibly powerful when a lot of people use it together. Imagine if you knew the exact traffic speed on every road in the city — every intersection, backstreet and freeway on-ramp — and how that would affect the way you drive, help the environment and impact the way our government makes road planning decisions.
And, therein lies the power of crowdsourced data. Google can draw position and speed data from GPS enabled phones running Google Maps on the road. If enough people drive the same roads with Google Maps running on their smartphone, Google can generate some really valuable traffic flow estimations.
As for the privacy issue, Google says they only use anonymous speed and location data, and then only when you enable location services. Then, they go even further by permanently deleting the start and end points of every trip, so that not even Google knows where you started and where you went.
Google says that smartphones like the T-Mobile myTouch 3G and Palm Pre come pre-installed with Google Maps and traffic crowdsourcing. Unfortunately, the iPhone isn’t yet capable of taking advantage of Google’s crowdsourced traffic data. Could that reflect Google’s relationship with its frenemy, Apple?
I guess my Palm Pre will be getting more attention now.