A Big Data Approach to Traffic

It’s popular to think that analytics and big data are becoming ubiquitous. Add to this the “Internet of Things” concept that vendors, experts, journalists, and pundits keep telling us is coming and it is easy to get the impression that we are awash in data all of which has tremendous value. And, this valuable data is ready to be harvested and digested, yielding brilliant insights that will transform our businesses and our lives.

That’s a nice thought but not exactly true. Big data technologies are still in the early stages of development. So far, they been mostly used to help marketing professionals come up with better ways to sell stuff to customers and most “things” are really mobile devices that are just another kind of computer. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a bright future for big data and analytics. They just need more work from smart scientists and engineers.

I had the opportunity to sit and talk with one of those smart engineers, Dr. Adel Sadek, Director of the Institute for Sustainable Transportation & Logistics (ISTL) and a Professor of Civil Engineering at the University at Buffalo (UB), the largest institution in the State University of New York System. What Dr. Sadek described for me was a future for big data, analytics and The Internet of Things that was obviously and measurably useful to businesses and human beings throughout the world.

The research at ISTL, carried out through a mix of public and private funding, seeks to improve our transportation system, supply chain management, and logistics by measuring thousands of variables about the roadway, vehicles, and drivers. Gathering the data requires sensors in roads and vehicles that can ascertain traffic flow, local weather conditions, how the vehicle is operating, and how the driver is responds to changing conditions. The scale here is enormous. With millions of miles of road, millions of vehicles and millions of drivers providing data collected over years, the sheer number of data points is astounding. It is only now, through modern big data technology, that this much data can be analyzed in a reasonable enough amount of time for it to be useful.

From this enormous treasure trove of data, Dr. Sadek and his colleagues are building adaptive models to help transportation companies decide on the best routes to optimize time to delivery, safety, costs, and fuel consumption. They are quantifying traffic behavior in bad weather to help logistics companies figure out alternative routes that allow delivers to arrive on time. ISTL is developing predicative models of border crossing delays, a key problem for goods shipped between the United States, Canada, and Mexico. They are even developing models that may predict whether or not accidents are likely to occur due to road conditions and driver behavior, eventually leading to safer roads. The work ISTL is doing is not the pie-in-the-sky talk about how everything will change because of some vague big data trends. This research has down to earth benefits in insuring greater safety, lower transportation costs, more ecologically friendly infrastructure, and predicable material delivery for manufacturing, which is especially important for modern just-in-time manufacturing.

There is more work to be done, of course. At present, Dr. Sadek and his colleagues need to scale up their systems to deliver information in real-time. While this is applied research, it also still research and will need to be commercialized in order to unlock its full potential. Sensors will need to be embedded in many more vehicles and miles of roadway as well. But this is what big data is really all about. It is not esoteric nor just another tool to get people to buy more stuff they don’t need. Instead, it is effecting the basic costs of business and how safe we are when we get into a car to drive to work. The work at ISTL shows just what big data and the Internet of Things really means to our lives, both commercial and personal.

Disclaimer: It should be noted that UB is my alma mater and my wife is a scientist at the university’s Research Institute on Addictions. While I have a certain affection for UB, it doesn’t change my perspective on the work at ISTL. No matter how you look at it, the applications Dr. Sadek and his team are working on have broad implications for the safety, cost, and eco-friendliness of our transportation infrastructure. Go Bulls!