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Government To Use Grab’s Data To Ease Congestion

Horrendous traffic seems to be a permanent feature of major cities in Southeast Asia like Manila and Jakarta. But it’s not hopeless.

Grab, Uber’s arch rival and Southeast Asia’s largest ride-hailing app, has tied up with the World Bank to provide data to transportation agencies in the region. That should help them combat traffic congestion.

Grab and the World Bank are providing the data for free, they explained today. The initiative, called OpenTraffic, starts in the Philippines and will extend to neighboring countries such as Vietnam and Indonesia next.

Big data, big jams

What the open source tool does is convert voluminous GPS data from Grab’s 250,000-plus drivers in six countries in the region into anonymized traffic statistics such as speeds, flows, and intersection delays.

Handing it to governments means transport agencies will now be able to monitor traffic conditions in real time and make decisions based on information that was previously not available.

Governments used to rely on traffic surveys that would be a year or more out of date by the time they’re published.

It’s a perfect use case for big data. “Through this we can provide accurate information that can help alleviate traffic congestion and improve road safety,” said Philippines transportation secretary Joseph Emilio Abaya.

Grab and the World Bank pilot-tested OpenTraffic in major cities in the Philippines last year, resulting in some interesting facts and recommendations. For instance, the platform discovered that the maximum average travel speed in Manila during weekdays is 38 kilometers per hour – way lower than, say, Singapore’s 55 kph. It also found that the best time for travel in the capital is at 4 am on Mondays, and the worst is at 7 pm on Wednesdays. Friday has the highest number of reported traffic-related injuries and fatalities.

Grab’s data will help analyze peak hours for major roads and highways, identify areas most vulnerable to bad weather, and spot those with the most accidents, among other things. This way, public agencies can better manage travel demand and hopefully cut travel time, design flexible routing schemes, and assign traffic personnel where they are needed the most.

“Whoever controls the information, controls the decision making. With this accurate and timely information on travel patterns, we can make fact-based decisions. The implementation also becomes less painful and less stressful,” said Philippines transportation undersecretary Rene Limcaoco.

He explained that governments used to rely on manual traffic surveys, which were time-consuming. Those surveys usually took one to two years to complete, which meant they were outdated by the time agencies got their hands on them. “This new initiative is like switching from manual calculator to Excel,” he quipped.

The kind of traffic data that Grab provides is supposed to be expensive. There are companies like Inrix in the US that exist to sell data they pull from drivers to agencies that need it. Yet Grab is giving it away for free.

Deevya Desai, Grab’s regional head of public affairs, explained why. “At the heart of this project is really our social mission, which is composed of three things: safety, improving accessibility to transportation, and improving the lives of our passengers and drivers.”

That’s a noble cause, and also a nice way of getting on the good side of governments critical of transportation apps.

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