When it comes to the fast-moving field of traffic management technology, there is something of a bubble between what is known — data — and what is unknown. And in that space exists a bubble of uncertainty and potential, a place where government might be able to improve its own operations or even address big public problems like congestion and collisions.
So much so, there’s an industry that works in that bubble. Case in point: INRIX. The company, which gathers traffic data from private vehicles, recently announced three contracts in Colorado and California, where it is either selling data or data analytics to government entities hoping to gain better insights into what’s happening on their roads.
To two of those agencies — the Southern California Association of Governments and the Colorado Department of Transportation — INRIX has sold access to its data analytics platform, Insights. According to Gary Carlin, director of public-sector business development for the company, the platform essentially allows states to take existing data and extract value from it.
“It allows for some fairly in-depth analysis to be performed, puts out graphics and reports. You don’t have to have a huge in-house staff for data scientists and analysts,” Carlin said.
Government entities can turn that information into whatever sorts of application they want, he said. Some popular uses include performing evaluation and impact analysis on public works projects like road expansions.
Research into post-project impact analysis is one area that’s seen a lot of expansion as of late. In September, the University of Southern California released a study focusing on how a light rail expansion in Los Angeles affected traffic along the city’s Interstate 10 corridor. Though public advocates of the project pitched the idea partially on the premise that it would cut down highway congestion, the researchers used traffic data from an array of sensors to show that that wasn’t really the case.
That kind of data is becoming easier for government officials to access. The Regional Integrated Transportation Information System based at the University of Maryland, for instance, pulls traffic data from INRIX and other sources to give users quick reports they can use to evaluate what potential road improvements might do for traffic and what completed projects have truly done.
With that kind of insight, Carlin said, traffic agencies can better guide their decisions on what kinds of projects to invest in. With vehicles becoming more and more connected and highways featuring more and more data-gathering infrastructure, there’s plenty of potential for learning more about the way traffic works and the way projects impact it.
"The ability to access historical traffic data and visually analyze movement patterns helps us pinpoint areas that will most benefit from road or transit improvements while streamlining the cost of our daily operations," said Annie Nam, manager of goods movement and transportation finance at Southern California Association of Governments, in a press release.
The nice thing about having more data and better analytics, Carlin said, is that it opens up the door for new uses. For instance, when he was training Colorado public employees on how to use Insights, he said one person came up with a use for the data that he had never seen before. The employee, who was tasked with overseeing a contractor, said the contractor had closed off part of a public road to do work. When the contractor delayed the re-opening of those lanes by several hours, the state employee used the analytics tool to show the contractor exactly how that delay affected traffic.
Then there are some as-of-yet-undeployed applications the company thinks it could offer the state, possibly through the Colorado DOT’s RoadX program. Carlin said INRIX sees an opportunity in Colorado to start delivering warnings to drivers about slow-downs in traffic ahead of them on highways. That’s because those quick drops in speed on highways has led to some pretty bad accidents in the past when vehicles slam into the back of a sudden queue.
"Colorado has an 11,000 foot mountain pass of Interstate with urban-like traffic congestion. Measuring reliability, delays, mobility, safety and infrastructure conditions for this region is a tricky business," said Ryan Rice, Colorado DOT's director of the division of transportation systems management and operations, in a press release. "[This] technology helps us maximize our dollars, be more surgical with our strategy, and decipher what is or isn't working. The analytics will also help to pair with other data systems to deliver real-time information to travelers."
That too could come from existing information.
“One of the things INRIX does is work with car manufacturers and we get data directly off the vehicles and we actually drive data back to them in the form of traffic data, incidents, and that becomes part of the overall feed,” Carlin said. “It goes back into the infotainment systems in the cars.”
In the future, he said, it’s possible it could also go into the cabs of semi-trucks traveling along the state’s highways. The lumbering tractor trailers, which need time to slow down, could use that information to avoid rear-ending their smaller road companions.
“At the end of the day there’s a lot of data out there,” Carlin said. “But by itself it’s not all that valuable.”
Ben Miller is the business beat staff writer for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.