Google is now using location-enabled mobile phones that have Maps for mobile installed to improve its real-time traffic data. According to the Google Blog:
If you use Google Maps for mobile with GPS enabled on your phone, that’s exactly what you can do. When you choose to enable Google Maps with My Location, your phone sends anonymous bits of data back to Google describing how fast you’re moving. When we combine your speed with the speed of other phones on the road, across thousands of phones moving around a city at any given time, we can get a pretty good picture of live traffic conditions. We continuously combine this data and send it back to you for free in the Google Maps traffic layers. It takes almost zero effort on your part — just turn on Google Maps for mobile before starting your car — and the more people that participate, the better the resulting traffic reports get for everybody.
Google won’t divulge exactly how many users of Google Maps for mobile there are, but it’s a central feature/app on the iPhone. It’s also available on the other major smartphone platforms. If roughly 50 percent of iPhone/iPod Touch users are in the US and there are 45 million owners of the devices around the world (according to Apple), it’s safe to say that there are many millions of location-aware handsets driving the morning and evening commutes.
In addition, Google has now added “live traffic conditions on arterial roads in selected cities” — in other words secondary or connecting routes. These data are coming in part from the mobile phone crowdsourcing described above. As you zoom in you can see more traffic data on those smaller roads. Here’s how the routes into midtown Manhattan look at roughly 1:30 p.m. Eastern today:
Mindful of those concerned about being tracked, Google says that the data being transmitted by phones is totally anonymous:
We understand that many people would be concerned about telling the world how fast their car was moving if they also had to tell the world where they were going, so we built privacy protections in from the start. We only use anonymous speed and location information to calculate traffic conditions, and only do so when you have chosen to enable location services on your phone. We use our scale to provide further privacy protection: When a lot of people are reporting data from the same area, we combine their data together to make it hard to tell one phone from another. Even though the vehicle carrying a phone is anonymous, we don’t want anybody to be able to find out where that anonymous vehicle came from or where it went — so we find the start and end points of every trip and permanently delete that data so that even Google ceases to have access to it.
These assurances won’t satisfy all critics and perhaps, especially, not the EU if Google seeks to use the same methodology in Europe at some point in the near future. Google is clearly very sensitive to the issue. As they should be; there’s empirical evidence that US consumers are in fact concerned about the capacity to be tracked through their phones, although they equally benefit from the location-awareness capability.
Google uses several unnamed sources to obtain traffic data, beyond the crowdsourcing discussed above.
Microsoft used handheld GPS devices in 2007 to develop its ClearFlow traffic prediction modeling. And independent traffic service Inrix, which also works with Microsoft, uses data from GPS devices. It should also be mentioned that Yahoo was the first of the major engines to offer real-time traffic data on maps in 2004.