Signals can get traffic out of jam

Transport for Greater Manchester is using big data to help ease traffic congestion and commuting woes, as Jonathan Weinberg reports

BACKGROUND

From pinpointing traffic jams to telling tram passengers about interesting places to disembark, big data is helping to keep millions moving across Greater Manchester.

Bosses at TfGM realised last year they had fallen behind in providing real-time travel information.

But instead of trying to solve things alone, they opened up their data to outside developers to use in new and innovative ways.

RATIONALE

Previously, TfGM saw its data collected in silos with different departments and computer systems not “talking”. This made it complicated and costly to easily roll out information alerts.

So in just six weeks, it created the Real-Time Open Data Information System using a company called Black Marble and Microsoft Windows Azure technology.

By offering just one gigabyte of raw data to third parties, it attracted more than 100 developers, who have since created everything from smartphone apps to journey planners and even a Pac-Man-style game.

BENEFITS

David Hytch, information systems director at TfGM, says: “We had an awful lot of data, but we could not afford to build the applications to make best use of it.

“We recognised there are some very smart people who could do far more with the data than we could possibly imagine.

“Now we can get usable applications out into the hands of the public much quicker than if we were developing them. It is a revolution.”

METHODS

Busy road routes, such as the A6 and A56, are being tackled with the use of Bluetooth monitoring technology.

These devices are attached to street furniture and can detect Bluetooth-enabled items, such as mobile phones or tablets, carried by drivers or passengers on buses. Many vehicles are also Bluetooth-enabled and can be detected in their own right.

Journey times are then worked out based on how long it takes to pass between the detectors. Congestion can be assessed and strategies put in place to counter it.

Mr Hytch adds: “For the first time, this provides us with real-time traffic flows. This allows traffic managers to make better decisions about signal timings and signage on the road network. We will expand the amount of data as we expand the number of detectors.”

Data has also been released about parking locations, and to show where trams and buses are as they travel around the city.

RESULTS

Big data projects using TfGM information take in more than just basic route planning.

Developers have created the Pac-Man-style game to monitor movements of a bus around a map of picking-up points, while another application alerts people on public transport to interesting stops or events to encourage them to disembark and explore.

The same raw data can be utilised by haulage and freight companies to better manage their fleets and deliveries.

Mr Hytch concludes: “There are sound reasons for the public sector to help people use the transport system more effectively, such as economic growth and jobs.

“We can better spend our money on the data sets and give the opportunity to the clever creative people out there to find uses for it.”