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WAMU, WTOP Vie over DC Traffic Reporting Integrity

by Roger Lanctot | 11月 06, 2012

A traffic tempest has erupted in a Washington, DC, teapot. The leading local broadcast traffic information provider, WTOP “with as many as 20 full- and part-time reporters,” in the words of one blogger, has “outed” local broadcast competitor, NPR affiliate WAMU, for using a remote traffic reporter – Jerry Edwards, previously seen regularly on NBC’s Channel 4 until his retirement in June 2011. Edwards is reporting DC traffic for WAMU from his home in Sarasota, Fla., where he moved after selling his home in Maryland, according to a Washington Post report.

The Washington Post reported the not unusual traffic reporting scenario on Sunday, November 4th (http://wapo.st/PRFfoy), which was followed by a blog on the topic (http://bit.ly/R9km4Y). At issue is whether a traffic reporting organization needs a physical presence in the market where it is reporting traffic.

With millions of advertising dollars at stake, the question is not a trivial one and it touches every organization from the local news-radio station to the state Department of Transportation, to traffic content providers and, yes, Google. Timely and accurate traffic reporting is vital to the management and movement of traffic around metropolitan areas and the guidance provided via navigation applications.

Location, location, location

The idea boils down to whether traffic can be adequately reported and interpreted from a distance or requires on the ground information gathering – that is, on top of in-place cameras and sensors and public reporting of incidents. WAMU has clearly voted in favor of remote traffic reporting. WTOP is insisting on the merits of local traffic reporting.

WAMU has a lot of company in the remote report category. Nokia Location & Commerce spun off its media assets more than a year ago in the form of Radiate Media. Radiate Media enables remote traffic reporting by providing access to real-time traffic and probe data with inputs from various DOTs, and incident and event data from “fully staffed operations centers” with 24/7 technical support, according to the company’s Website.

Actually, Radiate Media’s arrival coincided with the closing of many of the original Traffic.com local traffic reporting offices, such that most of Radiate’s activities are coordinated between Chicago and its Salt Lake City headquarters. Traffic.com was the traffic reporting company acquired by Navteq years prior to its acquisition by Nokia.

The remote traffic reporting philosophy is also supported by companies such as Google (handset GPS probes), Airsage (network signaling), and Trafficland (DOT cameras). Each of these companies views its technique-dependent solution as either the ideal approach to traffic reporting or as good enough. While some of these organizations provide predictive traffic modeling based on their single-sourced data, they all emphasize real-time traffic information.

This analyst has trumpeted the value of hyper-local insights regarding all aspects of location information. Traffic is no exception. But it is difficult though not impossible to offer hyper local traffic insights from more than 900 miles away, as WAMU is trying to do. It all depends on the input sources.

Better is the enemy of good enough

But the traffic data market is a classic case of better being the enemy of good enough. The only problem is convincing consumers that there is a better solution when they are content to get by with good enough. Worse, good enough solutions have sown despair among some traffic information users seeking truly helpful information. These are the people who regard traffic and weather as equally unpredictable – recent well-anticipated East Coast events notwithstanding.

WTOP has taken up the gauntlet of delivering better traffic information. The station approaches traffic as “a major news-gathering undertaking,” in the words of the blogger.

But WTOP’s commitment to authenticity and local reporting faces a steep challenge as a value proposition when information regarding traffic incidents and road conditions are freely and publicly available to all on the radio and via smartphone apps.  The station emphasizes its 24/7 commitment in personnel and information integration aided by listeners who call in to describe what they are seeing on the roads.

If you care about traffic in DC, you listen to WTOP

The WTOP effort is surprisingly analog, with individuals reporting traffic events live as they unfold, in a world dominated by digital inputs.  If you care about traffic in the DC area, you listen to WTOP.

WTOP executives further note that “there are no traffic cameras on federally controlled highways” and “a good percentage” of traffic cameras in the area are out of service at any given time. It is worth noting that Clear Channel’s Total Traffic Network, which maintains a regional office in Silver Spring, Md., maintains its own traffic camera network.

In fact, it is curious that the WTOP-WAMU contretemps almost completely omitted mention of Clear Channel. Clear Channel Communication’s Total Traffic Network maintains the largest private traffic monitoring network in the U.S., with 16 regional traffic hubs operating 24/7 and 10 smaller satellite offices.  TTN also maintains a proprietary network of traffic cameras as well as some aircraft all feeding the company’s TrafficNet internal traffic data platform which in turn feeds services including SigAlert as well as embedded navigation systems.

The challenge for all lies in the fact that with improvements in technology come parallel improvements in both local and remote traffic reporting. Different types of traffic information offer different value propositions for different users.

Casual observers of traffic information online, on the radio or on TV, may be satisfied with a general overview of conditions, while people driving in cars or navigating to a specific destination will not only want more timely and accurate information they will also need predictive traffic information, whether they are conscious of that need or not.

The increasing importance of traffic information, in a world of increasingly clogged highways, has stimulated interest in traffic information. What is unfolding today is a process of traffic information user education.

For some, remote traffic reporting will be okay. The WAMU solution is not unlike the Inrix-developed traffic app within the Aha Radio service from Harman. The app converts traffic flow information into speech output integrated with relevant local event notifications. It is a good enough solution.

The debate between WAMU and WTOP has implications for satellite radio broadcaster SiriusXM. Long considered a provider of good enough subscription-based traffic information, SiriusXM is in the midst of an extended process of determining a new way forward with a better traffic solution to preserve and expand its lucrative subscriber base.  When consumers are paying for traffic data as in the case of SiriusXM good enough can suddenly become not good enough.

Traffic data evolution continues

New and improved (Bluetooth) sensor data is on the way into the market from multiple suppliers fulfilling individual municipal and DOT contracts. Also on the way are traffic cameras enhanced with object and license plate recognition technology. With more embedded telematics systems will come improvements in vehicle probe inputs as well as systems and apps, such as Waze, that enable user-generated inputs and observations.

Traffic information suppliers are also moving steadily toward digital radio and IP-based TPEG traffic information that vastly increases the amount of traffic information that can be transmitted while enabling greater granularity in the identification of congestion location. And while some suggest, perhaps sarcastically, that drones would be helpful in interpreting traffic events and conditions it is no joke that drones could well replace helicopters – of which there are precious few today, replaced by cameras – to monitor choke points.

Implications

As George Harrison once sang: “It’s all up to what you value.” If traffic information is not mission critical to you or your organization you will not care about Jerry Edwards delivering the traffic news remotely. The important thing to know about traffic is that the nature and value of traffic information is changing every day.

There is an increasingly diverse array of traffic information sources and a steady shift toward higher frequency, higher bandwidth, higher resolution sources of traffic information obtained over fatter, faster pipes. The information is being interpreted on increasingly powerful computers with increasingly sophisticated algorithms capable of integrating an ever-expanding array of data types.

The last mile of traffic data delivery can be anything from an app to a radio or TV broadcast or Internet feed. Or the traffic information could simply be operating in the background of an off-board navigation solution fine tuning optimal routes for avoiding traffic.

Digital traffic resources are increasingly challenging analog human traffic reporters. Will digital “eyes” ever completely replace the human eye? Maybe. But until that happens, WTOP remains one of the best traffic information service providers in the country and WAMU’s traffic information is probably good enough for most.

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