The Traf-O-Matic

Everything old is new again

by / March 23, 2007
The democratization of geospatial data and ubiquitous connectivity may be the convergence point in redeeming our love affair with the automobile by helping us navigate through the increasingly congested arteries of America's aging roadways.

The change is perhaps most easily seen on the dash of your car. If the vehicle didn't ship with an onboard navigation system, it may have an aftermarket version. There is a growing number of aftermarket GPS systems vying for the coveted spot just right of the steering wheel.

Most look like variations of a pregnant PDA, but each brings different degrees of smart mapping to the mundane task of driving.

One such unit received positive notice at this year's Consumer Electronics Show. Touted as the "smartest, most Internet-connected navigation system on the road," it provides the choice of three routes to any destination, and it may be the next step in getting real real-time traffic information to where it is needed the most -- the car -- while giving drivers the option of searching gas station fuel prices en route. If there is a better way to find gas stations, restaurants and theaters, why not use the tool for finding at least a short list of government services on the fly?

While traffic camera video feeds operated by state and city departments of transportation have been a boon to traffic reporters, XML-based feeds of incident, volume, occupancy, speed and flow data are automatically putting the smart in smart mapping services. That said, the distinction among video, data and mapping may become moot if nascent offerings to turn cars into Wi-Fi hotspots on wheels reach critical mass -- bringing e-mail, instant messaging, streaming video and audio, real-time data, live mapping and online gaming to a car.

This intersection of a useful service and undeniably cool consumer devices holds the promise of delivering on an interesting idea that people have been working toward for at least three decades. Departments of transportation deserve much credit here, as do public-sector GIS shops in building expert systems that have since been opened to a much larger universe of users that includes all the rest of us.

Computer scientist Jim Gray, best remembered as the father of the online transaction, engineered a massive and freely available data store of maps and aerial photographs of the United States called TerraServer-USA during his tenure at Microsoft. Subsequent innovations in tying events and things to their geography owe him a debt of gratitude.

Then there were a couple of teenagers who, armed with traffic-counting boxes and some software they wrote themselves, set out to inventory traffic flows in the city in which they lived. It was 1972, and their company was called Traf-O-Data -- their names were Bill Gates and Paul Allen. The company later failed after their home state began offering free traffic processing services -- which freed them up to do other things.
Paul W. Taylor Contributing Writer

Paul W. Taylor, Ph.D., is the editor-at-large of Governing magazine. He also serves as the chief content officer of e.Republic, Governing’s parent organization, as well as senior advisor to the Governing Institute. Prior to joining e.Republic, Taylor served as deputy Washington state CIO and chief of staff of the state Information Services Board (ISB). Dr. Taylor came to public service following decades of work in media, Internet start-ups and academia. He is also among a number of affiliated experts with the non-profit, non-partisan Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) in Washington, D.C.

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