My commute as a metaphor for user-generated content

I was stuck on the Dulles Toll Road this morning because a car caught on fire a mile or so ahead of me. (Yes, that’s two back-to-back hellish commutes.) As I watched the helicopter hover above the car, I thought about what a great metaphor the situation was for what is happening with media today.

The helicopter represents the traditional media. You’ve got a limited number of helicopters, each covering a few things at a time. The data gets broadcast scattershot across the radio and TV to the entire Washington DMA. If you’re traveling on the other side of town and there is a smaller accident in your path, you might not hear about it because the car fire 40 miles away from you is going to take up the bulk of the time alotted for “traffic on the eights”.

At the same time, there were people using their cell phones to call and text friends and family to tell them about the car fire, telling them not to take the toll road. (I often do this when I’m stuck in unusual traffic.) This user-generated content and 1:1 communication allows for the delivery of more content to lots of little niches of people that care about it the most.

But that still requires people to do something. As any social networking site owner can tell you, that’s not easy. Some companies are experimenting with a more passive form – using the signals transmitted by cellphones with GPS chips to calculate the speed of traffic on roads. These data, which are automatically generated by users as they drive, can be used to monitor traffic flows and create maps like those on Google Maps. Alerts could be sent automatically to those who care about them most, without getting in the way of people 60 miles away.

In theory, you could also predict traffic based on the likely destination of all the cell phone blips. I usually take the same path home; as soon as I hit the road, you can include my historical path in the prediction model.

And just as with tracking people on the Web (even anonymously), privacy becomes a huge issue.

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About Rakesh Agrawal

Rakesh Agrawal is an analyst focused on the intersection of local, social and mobile. He is a principal analyst at reDesign mobile. Previously, he launched local and mobile products for Microsoft and AOL. He blogs at http://blog.agrawals.org and tweets at @rakeshlobster.
This entry was posted in gps, maps, mobile, mobile search, satellite navigation, web 2, web 2.0, wireless, wireless data. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to My commute as a metaphor for user-generated content

  1. chris2001 says:

    That´s an interesting metaphor, Rocky!
    Here in Germany, helicopters are used for traffic watching, too, but additionally some radio stations encourage people to call not only family, but the radio station – and the radio station integrates the content of the calls into the traffic news.
    The quality of this user-generated content is high, the production process effective – it needs only one single call to produce a traffic news on the radio -, and no privacy problems: if you call the station, you know what you´re doing ;-)
    Requirements are:
    - Personal interest. (I don´t think it is chance that the user-contributed notifications about the position of cameras used to identify too fast drivers are rather popular and get many calls…)
    - Personal feelings of responsibility of the calling person. The radio stations may explicitly name them when they communicate the message.
    - The radio station needs to be popular among drivers, and there shouldn´t be not too many competing radio senders for the same area who try the same system.

  2. We have the same thing here. I’m betting that very few people do it. Once every few days, I’ll hear a traffic report that credits a tipster.

    I doubt that they could handle much incoming call volume.

    It still suffers from the dissemination problem. They can only put the biggest (criteria being either sensational or impact on traffic) ones on the radio. And I only care about the two roads that I drive on.

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