taprs (Traffic and Pothole Reporting System)
Road traffic congestion is a widely known concern in the majority of European countries, especially in the Maltese Islands. The cause of such congestions is mainly because the volume of vehicular traffic on the road is almost at par, if not exceeding, the maximum capacity of a road or transport network and they are often caused or made worse by traffic incidents.
With a total population of 416,055 inhabitants over an area of 316 square kilometers, Malta is one of the most densely populated countries of all the European Union member states having an average of 1,320 persons per square kilometer. This problem is in turn being translated to a high density of traffic on the islands. In 2011, the number of registered cars on the road stood at 310,409, or 746 cars per 1,000 people, over a modest total road network of 2,269km. This soaring number of vehicles on such a small road network is in turn leading to heavy traffic, which at times leads to severe traffic congestions. To make matters worse, the lack of real-time traffic congestion reporting systems in Malta, may sometimes lead to deadlocks or bottlenecks on major parts of the transport infrastructure due to lack of information available to drivers. Moreover, the steady increase in the number of vehicles on the Maltese roads is also leading to a number of road surface imperfections such as potholes to be formed due to the fact that the road surface or the material beneath it, called base or sub-base, cannot support the weight of the traffic that it carries.
This scenario has lead Patrick Schembri to research a plausible solution to this phenomena as his dissertation in partial fulfillment of an MSc in Human Computer Interaction awarded by the University of Hertfordshire, UK. The aim of his dissertation was to devise a way on how to instantaneously and intelligently detect and report traffic and road surface disruptions using conventional technology. Unlike other expensive traffic incident detection techniques utilising different types of detectors such as inductive loops, radio frequency, video cameras, infra-red, microwave, magnetic and acoustic sensors, the aim of this project was to create a system that is cheap to implement thus making it widely accessible and at the same time able to monitor almost all the transport network unlike fixed sensor based techniques such as cameras which are only able to monitor specific spots of a transport network.
After taking into consideration that at the end of 2011 the number of mobile phone subscribers stood at 521.748 (equivalent to 1.25 subscriptions per individual in Malta), it was decided that the wisest option would be to gear this research towards the use of smart phone devices as the penetration of such devices is at large with their price tags being reduced dramatically through competition. Such devices are fully equipped with all the sensors required to detect the incidents pertaining to this study and it is one of the items that commuters carry with them wherever they go thus making it even more comfortable for them to be able to instantly check any incidents that they need to be aware of before and while commuting. It was also noted that in a survey conducted by the Malta Communications Authority in 2011, it was found that from a sample of 109 residential smart phone users, 44% use mobile internet on their smart phone on a daily basis, whereas 17% use it at least once weekly. As these figures continue to grow throughout the years, the combination of smart phones and data plans will act as a solid base for a traffic and pothole monitoring system to be built upon.
Once the technology was selected, the dissertation then continued by creating two intelligent algorithms from scratch that leverage the sensors built-in into smart phones such as gyroscope, accelerometer and geographic positioning system (GPS) in order to detect and report traffic and potholes intelligently and instantaneously in the Maltese Islands through crowd sourcing and collaborative means. Unlike other smart phone apps available on the market, the main aim of the system is to stay at the periphery of the drivers’ attention and detect and report incidents instantaneously, anonymously and automatically without the need of human intervention such as voice commands or other hand gestures for safety reasons. Apart from that, the algorithms are also able to automatically categorise the severity of the incident as low, medium or severe.
These algorithms were then further developed into a prototype application for Android powered smart phones whereby the detections and reports made by the application would help at generating a real-time snapshot of the situation on the Maltese roads, identifying congested roads and potholes detected and charting them on a map once certain thresholds are met. The geographic knowledge that is collaboratively constructed by the users through these two algorithms will aid Maltese commuters at making smarter use of the transport network in order to arrive to their destinations faster and safer. The instant reporting of traffic congestion and road surface imperfections will also be beneficial to the relevant authorities as they will be aware of any road surface imperfections categorised by severity and will also help them to improve their overall understanding of repeating events such as traffic congestions and allow them to respond swiftly to them and deploy the required task force in order to maintain equilibrium on the transport network.
taprs is in the final stages of development and will be released to different app stores shortly.