Next up: A traffic report by your cell phone

John Hinnen knows why people listen to news radio station 680 News in Toronto.

“Traffic is the No. 1 reason people listen to the station. We know that,” said the vice-president and general manager of Rogers Radio news programming. The station’s mantra — “traffic and weather together,” every 10 minutes, all day — is familiar to commuters the length of the Greater Toronto Area. Any improvement in the quality of 680’s traffic coverage isn’t a soft dollar return on investment; it means a bigger audience and more ad sales, Hinnen said.

So the newest traffic reporters for the station are in your coat pocket or handbag.

680 News and Rogers Wireless — both subsidiaries of Rogers Communications Inc. — have teamed with Toronto-based Intellione Inc. to launch io-traffic, a service that draws on traffic between mobile phones and cell towers to paint a picture of traffic on the streets in real time.

Parent company Intellione Technologies Corp., based in Atlanta, was founded by traffic engineer Randall Cayford, now the company’s chief technology officer, and business executive Ronald Herman, chief executive officer.

Cayford had been the principal programmer analyst for the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California at Berkeley where, with partial funding from the California Department of Transportation, he spent six years developing the algorithms and software that would turn cell phone chatter into real-time traffic speed information, said Willem Galle, chief operating officer of Intellione in Toronto.

In a cell phone network, there is continuous communication between handsets and cellular towers. While Tom Soumbas, business development manager for Rogers Wireless, wouldn’t divulge the nature of the data being passed back and forth — it’s proprietary information — he would say it’s used for ongoing quality of service and tower tower-to-tower handoff, and that it’s completely anonymous.

“It’s not-specific network data,” Soumbas said.

That communication can tell the system where a mobile phone is and how fast it’s moving. Intellione had the software, but Rogers had the network — and a primary market for the system in 680 News — making the pair a natural fit.

“We both have a piece of the solution,” said Galle.

In the Rogers implementation, traffic speed data is displayed on a Google map, with different coloured overlays on the road indicating the speed of traffic. It’s mashed up with the Ontario Ministry of Transportation’s network of traffic cameras throughout the city; users can click on a camera icon to bring up a static view of the area to confirm traffic conditions. Routes can be entered, and io-traffic will provide an estimated time of travel based on existing conditions.

Unlike some American cities, like New York and Chicago, Toronto doesn’t have a big enough network of in-pavement traffic sensors to provide detailed traffic condition data. And with sensors costing in the $250,000 range, said Hinnen, it’s an expensive proposition to come up with a useful network. The io-traffic system works with data from thousands of sensors, he said. “They might have 12” traffic sensors on a given stretch of road, said Hinnen. “We’ll have 12,000.”

Aside from its use by 680 News, the partnership is a business-to-business play at the moment, aimed at government, fleet management and media markets, said Soumbas. But there’s a consumer opportunity down the road.

“It’s also a great stepping stone to providing personalized traffic reports,” Hinnen said.

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