September 12, 2006
Traffic Flows Tracked From Anonymous Cell Phones GPS

Cell phones can report where they are because they have GPS (global positioning system) circuitry that allows them to query satellites to determine their locations. By watching the reported changing positions of cell phones it is possible to figure out which ones are in vehicles and determine traffic speeds on roads and highways.

Engineers have developed a system for taking anonymous cell-phone location information and turning it into an illuminated traffic map that identifies congestion in real time.The system takes advantage of the steady stream of positioning cues--untraced signals all cell phones produce, whether in use or not, as they seek towers with the strongest signals. It is the first traffic-solution technology that monitors patterns on rural roads and city streets as easily as on highways.

Developed by IntelliOne of Atlanta, Ga., the TrafficAid system could not only help guide drivers around tie-ups, but also tell emergency responders where accidents are or how effectively an evacuation is unfolding by pinpointing clusters of cell phones.

"Unlike sensors and other equipment along major freeways that is expensive and takes years to deploy, our system takes advantage of existing cellular networks in which wireless carriers have already invested billions of dollars," said National Science Foundation (NSF) awardee and IntelliOne CEO Ron Herman, a former engineer and computer scientist.

Herman was inspired by a friend's demonstration several years ago of a proof-of-concept Palm Pilot software that used real-time California Department of Transportation travel-time data to route the drivers around traffic snarls."I was completely sold," said Herman. "I believed then the next 'killer app' for mobile would demand live traffic data for every road--not just select highways equipped with speed sensors--and set out to make it happen."

There's a bigger pattern here: Data collected for one purpose gets aggregated, analyzed, and used for other purposes. Devices that can get queried to report information automatically without human involvement are becoming ubiquitous. Devices that would cost too much to deploy for some reason (e.g. traffic flow tracking) can get deployed for other reasons (e.g. mobile telephones) and then reused for other less economically valuable purposes.

The continued rapid increase in speed of computers is a well known phenomenon. I think the steadily falling costs of communications and data collection will have an even more profound effect. We are going to increasingly live in societies which are extremely measured and monitored. More nooks and crannies of life will have sensors and communications devices attached to them.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2006 September 12 08:41 PM  Surveillance GPS

Ivan said at September 13, 2006 1:43 PM:

We should put RFIDs with GPS in license plates.

It would allow such a system to work. In addition, it would allow a cost-per-individual-driver reduction for each mile of road. Instead of taxing gasoline or property, you could tax the people that actually use the road. It could allow for automatic toll payment -- and dynamic toll pricing to change traffic patterns.

Finally, it would be much cheaper than a camera system to do the same thing that is in the process of getting built.

simon robinson said at September 15, 2006 7:29 AM:

Of course, more than technically speaking, it is illegal to use a mobile and drive in the UK. Has anyone told the police about this?

Rob said at September 15, 2006 2:20 PM:

Your mobile phone communicates with the cell tower even when you're not talking on it. It has to know when you've moved from one cell tower's area to the next so that incoming calls can be routed to the proper cell tower. The interesting thing here is that I don't see any way for private data to be comprimised without the help of the phone company. Your phone's ID doesn't tie back to you except via your provider.

Companies using this data would know that "phone number 42" went that-a-way, but they wouldn't know that was your phone without some help from someone else.

On the other hand, they could know that "phone number 42" went from somewhere near your house (cell tower tracking isn't terribly accurate) to somewhere near where you work five days a week and, I suppose, with enough detective work, they could sort you out of the crowd.

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