I recently tweeted about the MassDOT’s MassHighway Department changing its traffic reporting services from its current vendor to another one. This got the attention of at least a few people, since I was contacted through Twitter and via e-mail about my recent tweet. Though only one paragraph, there was a lot offered in this e-mail note to me. I’ve re-printed it below, and posted my response to it (I’ve redacted the name, though there’s nothing for the author to worry about).
The larger issue here isn’t about reporting traffic on Massachusetts roads. It’s about being in a system that is seemingly content with the ‘as is ‘condition, and not forward-looking enough to innovate. Perhaps there were plans to do so (I don’t have first-hand knowledge). What seems like the ultimate demise of the current 511 traffic system is the cost and the delivery/distribution of the information.
Dear Mr. Belniak,
I am writing you because of a recent “Tweet” of yours I read on the MassDOT page regarding the “awesome changes coming”. What you may not be aware is that a proven and popular system of people providing traffic reports is to be replaced with a computer. The SmarTraveler system is one of the best 511 services in the nation. In fact, the idea of providing traffic reports was developed back in the late 80’s early 90’s here in Cambridge Massachusetts. SmarTraveler/SmartRoute Systems is a private company that provides the state with some of the best, most accurate traffic information possible given current technology and resources. They utilize traffic cameras, airplanes, buses, mobile units, and a helicopter to monitor traffic information and accidents. I do not believe the new provider has a long history of providing any traffic service/information. I do hope you will at least see our side of the story as well.
Thank you for your attention.
To Mrs./Mr. xxx, thank you for the note – I appreciate you taking the time. You’ve surfaced quite a bit here, so I’ll reply in parts.
- I recently tweeted about my frustration with the 511 service because it’s something I’ve complained about before via a feedback telephone line, and nothing changed. To be clear, I like the service, though I think there is room for improvement (anecdotally, my neighbors all agree). The main gripe I had was that the voice that conducts many of the outgoing messages for my main routes (I-95 and I-90) is too “radio-like” or “game show-like”. I don’t need a narrative saying, “There are many things to be aware of as you exit the City this evening…” – just get to the point and tell me the traffic conditions. I’m often checking traffic in a hurry, and need to make a decision quickly.
- “Popular” does not always mean good. It’s popular because, in terms of getting traffic via the telephone, it’s the only option (that I’m aware of). So calling it popular isn’t a valid point.
- It’s not being replaced by “a computer” as I understand it (you may have greater insight than I do). Instead, the new system is a collection of data sources, some of which are electronic and computer-driven. The voice that delivers the reports will be, as I understand, a computer. That part may irritate me, but I’m withholding judgment until I experience it first-hand.
- I’m interested in your claim of SmartTraveler being “one of the best 511 services in the nation.” Do you have data that you can point me to or share to show that? As a former traffic engineer in the Commonwealth, this is very interesting to me. (please contact me via e-mail privately as you did to send this note)
- My main issue with SmartTraveler’s accuracy is that the reports are always lagging (and I mean always). Often times (8 out of 10 – I check twice per day, five days per week), the report indicates a much better ride than the actual conditions, and that’s either due to the reporter relaying the wrong information, or the report data being old/stale. Serving traffic data via a real-time mechanism reduces the lag and makes the information more accurate and more valuable. If the current system (a series of 22 or so humans, from what I understand) can give more accurate reports faster, then great. But that hasn’t been my experience for quite some time.
- One of the data sources for the new system, as I understand it is INRIX. This, from a traffic reporting (and prediction) standpoint, is cutting edge. INRIX is available as an iPhone application, and this is where I became familiar with it. It uses real-time data and is available to me without the cost of a phone call or waiting every ten minutes for a radio report. I see (visually) a map so I can get the complete context of my drive (I wrote about context and content here, and ironically used Massachusetts traffic as my metaphor). Aside from the map, they also tout the ability to forecast the demand and congestion on roadway segments based on existing conditions and past history on those roadway segments. Reading the overview page of what INRIX offers does not lead me to conclude that the new provider “does not have a long history of providing any traffic service/information.” – in fact, quite the contrary. Furthermore, from what I understand, the new service will be utilizing multiple data sources, and not just one.
- I’m not sure how to interpret “I do hope you will at least see our side of the story as well”. I’m not taking sides (I didn’t even view this is a situation where there are sides to take and one has to choose a side). You reference “our”, so I’m presuming you work for the service that MassDOT currently has, but you don’t state that in your note to me.
- Let me be clear: When it comes to reporting traffic on Massachusetts roadways, I’m not pro-computer/anti-human being, and I’m not pro-human being/anti-computer. I’m pro-good traffic reports, not lagging in time/stale, accurate, delivered in a timely manner, and efficient. If that’s better done by a human, great. If it’s better done by a computer, then that’s great, too – I don’t care which. Apparently MassDOT seems to think that the better option (accuracy, delivery, cost, and I’m sure other factors) is the new method. If the users of the new service are vocal like me, MassDOT will find out soon enough if their switch will pay off.
I really do thank you for the note, because I think you offer quite a bit of food for thought. I hope others (your colleagues, those pro-current method, those pro-new technology, and anyone else in between) share their views as well.
image courtesy of burning image
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