Nov 132010
Waze screenshot
Image by Don Coyote via Flickr

DREADING traffic jams this holiday season? There are apps for that.

The advent of GPS-enabled cellphones has generated a wave of applications, many of them free, that turn drivers into veritable traffic reporters.

Here’s how they work: Your GPS-enabled phone automatically transmits bits of data to Waze, Inrix,Google and other traffic app makers that show where you are and how fast you’re moving. Some apps also allow users to report accidents, closed roads or construction (when parked or in standstill traffic, of course). Each company then combines the information to get an idea of traffic conditions and distributes that across its network.

Call it crowd-sourcing from your car. While you are fuming in traffic on I-95, other drivers can benefit from that information and avoid getting stuck themselves. In turn, you get free traffic reports from other users.

“It’s real-time traffic, not just where there are road sensors but anywhere anyone is driving,” said Di-Ann Eisnor, a vice president at Waze, a start-up based in Raanana, Israel. Waze has been adopted by about 550,000 users since it became available in the United States last summer.

Before GPS-enabled cellphones, traffic reporting companies like Inrix relied on data from road sensors, police scanners, commercial truck fleets outfitted with GPS tracking devices, and other sources. But even with such a wide range of information there were gaps in traffic coverage. Road sensors are found only along sections of major highways, for example, not along back routes that get tied up during apple-picking season.

That’s where crowd sourcing comes in. “No matter where those consumers go, it allows us to get speed data for all the roads they travel,” said Jim Bak, a spokesman for Inrix, a traffic services company based in Kirkland, Wash. That data includes “backroads and arterial city streets,” he added.

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