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Now, a map to ease traffic
Sayantani Kar in Bangalore
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December 03, 2007

A social IT project holds answers to traffic snarls and transport problems in Indian cities. And Delhi may soon be on its map. The city then, with the help of the project, will be able to help its denizens travel on traffic-free roads and reach their destinations in time.

The initiative will allow citizens of the capital to check traffic status ranging from the time to reach their destinations, alternate route to a choked street to when the next bus will arrive through a text SMS or on a map on the net.

While the world tries to tweak global positioning systems to ease urban traffic, Bangalore-based start-up Mapunity Information Services has figured out a faster solution.

By harnessing telecom data provided by Airtel, its enterprise partner, Mapunity can apply the solution right away and at 8-10 times less the cost, according to Ashwin Mahesh, CEO and co-founder of Mapunity.

Infamous for its haphazard, hour-long jams, Bangalore was the first city to get its own traffic information system in June this year. It was built on the global information system platform by Mapunity. Hyderabad and Chennai followed suit, with the Chennai TIS being launched last week. Now, Mahesh and his team are keen to launch it in Delhi.

Mapunity is a social enterprise with an operational cost of Rs 700,000-Rs 10,00,000, partly underwritten by Airtel's contribution and partly by Mapunity's other projects.

Mapunity's project allows cellphones to act as proxies for its users -- whether they are on foot or in vehicles. The number of cellphones carrying Airtel's SIM cards get logged in Airtel's towers which then denote the traffic movement.

Mahesh says, "Airtel's consumer base is sufficient to fairly reproduce the traffic situation." Privacy of the users is taken care of as "the data does not leave Airtel's servers. Our algorithms run in their servers and send us only the cluster data which we can translate into traffic information for the user to understand", he informs.

Deepak Mehrotra, director (mobility business), South India, Airtel, says: "To track traffic movement at a granular level, we have installed micro-towers at street junctions and along the roads that cover an area of 500 metres around them. The existing BTF towers could not provide such specific data". Bangalore has 150 such towers.

Mapunity transforms such data to tell users of clogged routes, how to avoid them and how much time each route will take. This helps because people avoid the route and don't add on to a traffic jam. Mapunity also lends its GIS to ancillary uses such as a user-managed carpool system where people can figure out the nearest stops in a carpool route.

EMBARQ -- the World Resources Institute Centre for Sustainable Transport -- has shown interest in telecom data as a planning tool. Formed in 2002, the association acts as a catalyst for socially, financially, and environmentally sound solutions to the problems of urban mobility.

"It can cover all the stages -- planning, operation and information dissemination -- in any kind of transport projects", Mahesh says, explaining the global interest.

The common man is not the only one to benefit from Mapunity's project. Authorities such as the traffic police and the municipality can benefit as well. Mahesh says, "Planning a new bus route can take months. With our effective tracking system, the movements of 2.5 million people can be recorded every day."

Bangalore has seen the maximum number of innovations (some of which are still in the pilot stage). These include accident mapping, timing signals, traffic violation reporting, and passenger information systems that tell people when a bus is going to arrive.

Mahesh thinks Mapunity's USP is the flexibility its GIS provides in addressing public information hurdles by presenting data in an easy, visual format.

Mahesh plans to talk to the Delhi authorities, who have already evinced an interest. "It is better if the authorities -- potential stakeholders -- step in at the start of the project," he says. In Bangalore, while the traffic police pitched in the early stage with manpower and coordination, the city municipality gave permission for micro-towers and will soon be creating management systems on the GIS.

Can Mapunity help the menace of rash Bluelines? "We need to take away incentives to speed. One of them could be telling the drivers that crossing a certain point before a designated time-frame will attract penalty. It can be ensured by tracking the buses through our traffic information system," Mahesh says.

For now, Mapunity will help visualise the bus routes on a geo-spatial map for the Delhi Integrated Multi-Modal Transit System. This would help the city to optimise the distribution of private buses.

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