Boston is using big data to solve traffic jams

May 21, 2015, 4:08 PM UTC
Nine Alarm Fire In Boston's Back Bay
BOSTON - MARCH 26: Boston Traffic, seen here on Commonwealth Avenue, was severely affected by a nine alarm fire at 298 Beacon Street in the Back Bay on March 26, 2014. (Photo by Jonathan Wiggs/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Photograph by Jonathan Wiggs — Boston Globe via Getty Images

Boston’s traffic issues are well-known and now the city is taking on one primary scourge—double-parking—with real-time data analysis and old-fashioned police work.

The city is testing a pilot program that uses data compiled from Waze and other sources to deploy bicycle cops to ticket and/or tow cars double parked on Commonwealth Ave., according to Daniel Koh, chief of staff to Boston Mayor Martin Walsh.

This is one use of big data collection and analysis that many people can get behind. “Comm Ave. is a tremendous pain with parked cars that take it from three lanes down to two—often at rush hour. So we said, ‘let’s fight these guys.’ We hired a Boston cop strike team on bikes to ticket the heck out of all the people double parking,” Koh told attendees of a Big Data event hosted on Thursday by Silicon Valley Bank and Hack/reduce, a Cambridge, Mass.-based incubator for big data startups.

Boston has already announced that it is using data from Waze, a Google-owned smartphone app that crowd-sources traffic updates from some 450,000 local users. The city also is working with Uber to ease traffic woes by leveraging ride data. (This strikes some as a little problematic given that Uber and Boston cab companies are in a legal tussle over whether Uber should even be allowed to operate in the city.)

Legalities aside, Koh said the combination of data sources and street cameras means that officials in the city’s traffic nerve center can work behind the scenes to ease congestion.

All of the local Waze data feeds into the city’s traffic management center where officials can manipulate traffic lights based on what’s happening on the ground, and then compare resulting conditions with what has happened historically at that site over a period of time.

Koh also referenced “a really cool experiment” with the MBTA’s Silver Line in which the traffic center will hold the green light if a bus is coming. “We can reduce the commute time on the Silver Line by 15% to 20% just by doing that,” he said.

These experiments also could resonate far beyond Boston’s crowded streets. Gartner recently published research showing how big companies aren’t yet sold that Hadoop-based big data applications are worth the effort, namely due to a lack of monetization opportunities. But a major municipal government’s use of proprietary data from companies like Waze and Uber could cause those big companies to take notice and change their minds.

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