Big data tapped against traffic woes

Copyright: Mikkel Ostergaard / Panos

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Grab, the Singapore-based technology firm that offers a ride-hailing app in major South-East Asian cities, and the World Bank Group have partnered for a big data project that aims to alleviate traffic along Manila roads.

Called OpenTraffic, the open-source platform launched on 5 April, provides real-time traffic data to transportation agencies and city planners. It will do this by translating voluminous GPS data from Grab’s drivers into traffic statistics, including speeds, flows and intersection delays.

“We share a common objective of using big data to make critical decisions about traffic and infrastructure management,” says Poch Ceballos, head of GrabTaxi, Grab Philippines. “With Grab’s network of drivers travelling across Philippine cities every day, there is a rich real-time GPS dataset now readily available to the DOTC (Department of Transportation and Communications) as our public service.”

The data will help the DOTC and other traffic management agencies analyse peak hours for key corridors and identify those most affected by bad weather and accidents. The hope is that the agencies will be able to better manage the traffic situation, cutting urban travel time.

Some of the policies that they are looking at as early as now include optimisation of traffic signals and implementation of flexible routing schemes.

For someone who commutes in Manila every day, this initiative is certainly welcome. Cutting urban travel time will help boost productivity of workers and ultimately, the economy. The Google-owned navigation app Waze last year found that the average commute in Metro Manila takes about 45.5 minutes, and the company called it the “worst on Earth”. The Japan International Cooperation Agency estimates the traffic problem to cost the country more than US$20 billion in lost productivity every year.

There’s no certainty, however, that even with this initiative, Manila’s roads will be decongested. Horrifying traffic has been a perennial problem in the country and the government has, time and time again, failed to address it. There are just too many vehicles plying the streets and existing public transportation facilities are inadequate and deteriorating. Perhaps the government should solve those two things first.

This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s South-East Asia & Pacific desk.