A pan-european project bridging the private/public sector divide is exploring the potential of sharing traffic data for the benefit of road users, traffic managers and businesses alike. Traffic Techology International’s James Allen reports
The information a traffic manager, a navigation service provider, or even a logistics company possesses can legitimately be considered one of the most significant aspects of its business, making it stand out among its competitors.
Whether it is from a vehicle sensor, or simply via the collection and storage of personal information supplied by customers, the data retrieved can be leveraged to greatly enhance the service provided.
It is why many go to great lengths to ensure their data is protected from external parties unaffiliated with the business and its interests.
One project in Europe, however, is pushing against such attitudes. Harnessing the strengths from organizations on both sides of the public/private divide, SOCRATES 2.0 (System of Coordinated Roadside and Automotive Services for Traffic Efficiency and Safety) will see companies share data in a way previously unheard of.
Tiffany Vlemmings, a project manager at Rijkswaterstaat (RWS), the Dutch government department responsible for maintaining road infrastructure, explains the underlying issue that has led to the emergence of the project.
“What we see today is that road users have discontinuous information,” she says. “There may be variable message signs on the roadside saying there’s an accident ahead, but at the same time they have their own in-car navigation service and the information provided by each don’t tend to match up.
“It’s not very convenient to have these conflicting messages because, as a driver, you still need to decide what to do, and you don’t know what advice is most informed.
“At the same time, traffic managers use the data they have about the situation to make decisions, but they don’t necessarily have all the information to accurately forecast where congestion spikes will be.”
Sharing is caring
The basic premise of SOCRATES 2.0 is that the more traffic-related data is shared, the better traffic managers can respond to incidents on the roads, the more likely navigation services can offer the best journey plan, and the more informed drivers can be in avoiding congestion ahead of them.
Funded by a subsidiary of the European Commission, RWS is overseeing the project, but of the four sites earmarked for it, just one is located in the Netherlands.
Involving all 11 partners, the Amsterdam pilot will be the largest trial, but ITS World Congress host city Copenhagen in Denmark, Munich in Germany and Antwerp in Belgium are also locations SOCRATES will be piloted in, to ensure services are scalable and can be replicated Europe-wide.
Project partners include the municipal governments of the respective cities, car maker BMW, mapping and navigation service providers Here and TomTom, as well as data-processing firm Technolution and traffic management businesses Be-Mobile and MAP.
“These private companies collect their own traffic-related data that benefits their customers, but it is often incomplete or out of date because traffic management measures have been installed without their knowing,” explains Vlemmings.
“So, for instance, if you are providing a navigation service, and you don’t know that in five minutes one of the lanes in the road will be closed – reducing capacity – maybe you would suggest another route.
“We want to make the best navigation service for road users, improving the quality of traffic information, making it more consistent. To do that, we think data from private entities and public organizations should be integrated.”
Putting it into practice
It is one thing, however, to acknowledge the potential benefits that collaboration brings; but given the status in which data sets are held, it is quite another for large, data-rich, multinational corporations to actually share their data with outside parties.
Vlemmings is aware of how precious many firms hold their data, but that grip is noticeably loosening among SOCRATES partners.
“The companies do not and will not share their cleaned data with other companies, so, within SOCRATES, the raw data they share is aggregated and processed with all the rest in such a way that it will not interfere with or undermine a company’s operations, but will be incredibly helpful in completing the picture of what’s happening on the road,” she says.
Greater understanding of road activity has clear advantages for traffic management centers. Knowing a certain number of vehicles are heading in a similar direction enables managers to make the most effective decisions for maintaining traffic flow, but, according to Vlemmings, the potential benefits reach further.
“This collaboration is not just beneficial to the public sector, but is also very necessary for the private sector,” she says. “They need to have good-quality navigation information for their customers and the problem with satnavs these days is that every system has very similar information.
“So, you can never be sure you are getting the best route planner as it can send you right into a traffic jam, because it’s not just you but all the other drivers that have been rerouted along the same road, clogging up another route.
“In the early days, when only a few people had them, they were very effective for avoiding congested routes, but now everyone has a digital navigation device, so today what sets one apart from the rest is finding how much capacity on the road network is still available and factoring that in to the route planner.
“It’s not just about giving individual route advice, but making sure the advice given doesn’t send people into another traffic jam, and you can only do that if you have complete information – so not just floating car data, but also roadwork and traffic management information.”
Reducing congestion and improving the driving experience for road users are important intended outcomes for the project, but Vlemmings is also hopeful more complete data sets could lead to the provision of new services.
She envisages a scenario in the future where road authorities could incentivize drivers to avoid certain roads with rewards schemes, to ensure key performance indicators, such as emission levels, for those roads are met. Alternatively, to achieve the same outcome, navigation providers could be paid to direct a percentage of drivers off certain roads.
Such considerations are interesting propositions for traffic managers to ponder, but are a way off from becoming reality just yet.
Currently still in the planning phase, the team behind SOCRATES is building momentum toward full pilots in its four locations from January 2019. But that doesn’t mean the hard work can wait till next year but, as Vlemmings explains, a substantial amount of groundwork has already been laid.
“We are 11 partners, from both the public and private sector, in one consortium. So what we really needed was a common language to talk to each other with, to make sure that we all mean the same thing,” she says. “We also needed to lay down shared aims and objectives, because each partner is in the project for their own, unique reasons.”
Agreeing on a course of action
Much of the partner efforts have, so far, been focused on constructing a common framework that incorporates these requirements – and also looking at how data will be managed, communicated and processed.
It is this last aspect that is very much up for debate, with the pilots trialling various setups. For most, a designated intermediary will be responsible for ensuring smooth data exchanges between the public traffic management centers and the back offices of the private enterprises that are involved. But in one scenario to be tested there will be no intermediary, with the partners involved responsible for constructing their own lines of data exchange.
Irina Koller-Matschke, a development engineer for BMW, who was project leader for the creation of the framework, explains, “It is expected that for the different pilots there will be no one-size-fits-all cooperation model and variations to the intermediary types are possible.
“The upcoming SOCRATES 2.0 pilots will experiment with different cooperation models and intermediary types for each use case, in order to experience more and learn the effects of different options. The results will be used to update the framework.”
Once the trials are completed, the partners will reconvene, as well as engaging with stakeholders outside of the consortium, to draw conclusions as well as to provide recommendations and guidelines for deploying services on a more permanent basis. With what has been achieved already, Vlemmings is sanguine about what the next 12 to 18 months have in store.
“If it turns out that we have indeed produced a blueprint for how public and private corporations collaborate, then SOCRATES will certainly be recognized as a success, but even if it doesn’t work, it has been a huge learning curve for future data exchange. And that is extremely valuable because the potential of data fusion to achieve cleaner data sets is almost limitless.
“But we have very skilled people, who are very keen on making sure it’s going to succeed. It’s in the best interest of all the parties involved and that makes everybody very committed.”