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How Google Maps Live Traffic Works: Crowdsourcing

Remember when we posted about the Live Traffic feature in Google Maps going “live” in Canada? This feature is pretty darn awesome, and many people have been wondering how the service actually works to find all the busy hot spots.

The answer is quite simple, according to the Official Google Blog. Google wrote about this feature near the end of August, but at the time it was just being rolled out in the USA. Here’s how the Live Traffic feature tracks which roads are busy and which aren’t:

If you use Google Maps for mobile with GPS enabled on your phone, that’s exactly what you can do. When you choose to enable Google Maps with My Location, your phone sends anonymous bits of data back to Google describing how fast you’re moving. When we combine your speed with the speed of other phones on the road, across thousands of phones moving around a city at any given time, we can get a pretty good picture of live traffic conditions.

We continuously combine this data and send it back to you for free in the Google Maps traffic layers. It takes almost zero effort on your part — just turn on Google Maps for mobile before starting your car — and the more people that participate, the better the resulting traffic reports get for everybody.

Eureka! That’s ingenious really. This phenomenon, known as “crowdsourcing” has been around ever since GPS devices have been introduced into the marketplace. However, it was Google who was able to make it useful by harnessing the massive scale of mobile users and their locations.

How? They made it possible by making Google Maps for mobile phones a free and easy download. This, combined with the millions of iPhone users utilizing Google Maps makes it easy to tell which streets are busy and which aren’t. When I’m zooming around town I always use Google Maps to find places or to track my current location. I guess I’m just doing my part to help fuel the “live traffic” feature!

Here’s a first hand account of the new Live Traffic feature actually being useful and accurate, according to avid iPhoneinCanada.ca reader Mr. Speedy:

Works pretty good. I drove to a red area yesterday afternoon in Montreal. Upon entering the “red” zone, I said to myself “That thing doesn’t work” as I wasn’t seeing any sign of slow downs, but a few hundred meters later… traffic had slowed down to a crawl! So the red zone began a little too soon on the phone, but the status was pretty accurate. I am impressed. They say it works by calculating other cellphone user’s speed. Nice.

Thanks to Mr. Speedy for the blog link!

Founder and Editor-in-Chief of iPhoneinCanada.ca. Follow me on Twitter, and @iPhoneinCanada, and on Google+.

  • http://twitter.com/kareshi2k Chung Tong

    but this technique can lead to outdated data.. for example, i am seeing lots of red on yonge and DVP at 3:34 a.m. now

  • Dusty

    Thx for the how to ;)

  • Chris

    Maybe those are people walking and using Google maps at the same time? Just a guess.

  • Kai

    Yeah, I do this often… It's a design flaw but I'm sure they have an algorithm that weighs faster moving traffic and lower number of data more heavily than lots of slow moving signals.

  • Mike

    The blog also says “the iPhone Maps application, however, does not support traffic crowdsourcing” so I guess you're not contributing as much as you'd like. Anyways, I'm pretty sure that 'crowdsourcing' is just one source of data combined with other more traditional data sources (probe vehicles, traffic detectors, etc.).

  • Mr. Speedy

    You're welcomed iPhone Fan!

    BTW, my friend “bgrier” wrote an article on the Future Shop Tech Blog, which he contributes to, about crowdsourcing after I sent him the Google Blog post link. Check it out at http://www.futureshopforums.ca/t5/Tech-Blog/Who

  • condorcounter

    So this is great! However what if you are a pedestrian? A cyclist? On the bus or train in a dedicated lane or next to a highway/road?

    It does seem it needs a fair number of people to make it effective, only a few roads in Ottawa (like the Queensway) ever show traffic. And Riverside Drive near Smyth often shows red, even though it is almost empty. Is it because Google thinks the speed limit is 80 or 100 and it is only 60?

  • condorcounter

    So this is great! However what if you are a pedestrian? A cyclist? On the bus or train in a dedicated lane or next to a highway/road?

    It does seem it needs a fair number of people to make it effective, only a few roads in Ottawa (like the Queensway) ever show traffic. And Riverside Drive near Smyth often shows red, even though it is almost empty. Is it because Google thinks the speed limit is 80 or 100 and it is only 60?

  • Tnc

    I had the same query while stuck in traffic this morning. Upon getting on the highway from Verdun, google maps instructed me to take a different highway route, which I ignored. Sure enough, I stumbled on a road block on once I got off and drove on Notre Dame, and began googling how gmaps was able to source this information.

    I was never aware until now that the color coding on the streets corresponded to traffic conditions. I will pay more attention to it from now on.

  • Hank

    I would be interested to see a response to that – how do they filter out foot traffic?

  • Hank

    I would be interested to see a response to that – how do they filter out foot traffic?

  • Hank

    I would be interested to see a response to that – how do they filter out foot traffic?

  • Gabriel Lehto

    Awesome!! This really genial!
    Here in Brazil, particularly in São Paulo this service works fantastically well! Actually brazilians (paulistas) have almost 2 cel per person (there are 210million cels here)… so I think it turns this system even better!

  • shaktipada

    It is working pretty well in Pune, India. For last few weeks I am using the same when I commute from home to office and back. Helped me to avoid few traffic snarls and the consequent delays and stress..