CHAMPAIGN — In an ideal world, you will be able to drive with ease toward Memorial Stadium on game day and grab an optimal spot for tailgating with few traffic glitches.
The reality is not always that case, and most major events like football games, marathons and concerts cause traffic headaches in big and small cities across the globe.
Today more than 100 University of Illinois students armed with smartphones will be stationed at intersections around the south end of campus, sending real-time traffic data about pre-game traffic to an engineering lab on campus. There a team of researchers will be fine-tuning a new system that aims to help traffic flow more smoothly before and after major events.
Called TrafficTurk, the application allows people with smartphones to gather traffic information. A finger swipes across the screen in the direction the car was headed as it passes through an intersection. The data is then sent directly to servers at the Newmark engineering lab on campus, where a team of 20 analyzes the data as it comes in.
"We can process it and turn it into traffic information that is useful to commuters, to police officers, for emergency response crews," said Dan Work, an assistant professor in civil and environmental engineering and research assistant professor in the Coordinated Science Lab in the College of Engineering.
For example, one day if you're driving through a congested area you can find out what areas to avoid. If an ambulance is navigating through a city and needs to get to someone's house as soon as possible, the driver can find out which heavily trafficked roads to avoid.
The idea for TrafficTurk came to Work in February of this year.
"One of the major challenges today is, it's difficult to get lots of data on (city) streets. ... GPS data is not dense enough to give you accurate, real-time information during ... events like football games or when a politician comes to town and shuts off streets," Work said.
Other methods of gathering data — such as inductive loop detectors, which are permanently installed in the road's pavement or near the road, or video detection systems — are useful but expensive, he said.
The idea for TrafficTurk was inspired by the manual collection of data, when people are sent out to intersections with devices that monitor traffic. One of Work's earliest jobs was when he lived in Ohio and was paid hourly to hang out at an intersection and push a device's button every time a car went through an intersection.
With TrafficTurk, a smartphone essentially becomes one of those devices, called a "turning movement counter." The application can be downloaded from a website; right now it's only available by invitation.
Work started hiring team members over the summer, and at every home football game this fall about six people have been collecting data, building a prototype system and working out any bugs in the application. They've been working around the clock in recent weeks preparing for today's run. The goal in the coming weeks is to work on making the system more robust, Work said.
The name for the application, TrafficTurk, was inspired by the Mechanical Turk, a chess-playing machine from the 18th century. The machine beat real players in chess games, but inside the machine was an expert chess player working the mechanisms.
"The reason the technology works well is people actually go out there and manually enter the data," Work said.