Why better traffic data means more than just a faster commute

You might never have heard of Inrix, but there’s a good chance it’s already helped you out — or vice versa.

The company, which specializes in real-time traffic data, powers a wide variety of in-vehicle navigation systems, mobile apps, commercial fleet management systems and even Google Maps (s goog).┬áThe secret behind Inrix’s success that it collects lots of data from lots of drivers in order to help everyone get where they’re going faster. But saving commuters driving time is just the beginning of the company’s plans. It thinks traffic data can help change a wide variety of industries, maybe even the world.

100 million devices and 1.8 million miles of road

That a traffic-data company could contribute to such macro-level change might seem laughable until you get a sense of Inrix’s scale. According to founder and CEO Bryan Mistele, 6 of the 8 auto companies with built-in navigations systems (including Ford, BMW and Audi) use and share Inrix data, as do 8 of the 12 top navigation apps in Apple’s (s aapl) App Store (including MapQuest (s aol), Garmin (s grmn), Microsoft (s msft) and Telenav). Many of the commercial trucks we see on the streets are sharing data with Inrix too, and even “dumb” phones without GPS and internet connections are sharing location data with the company through cell towers.

All told, the company counts more than 100 million endpoints as its data sources and covers more than 1.8 million miles of road worldwide, Mistele said. Its total volume of traffic data, which the company crunches through constantly to generate real-time information, is more than 500TB. It runs its own homemade big data infrastructure, Mistele says, because “there are no off-the-shelf packages [not even Hadoop] that in real time can process that amount of data.”

From real-time to predicting the future

And generating real-time traffic conditions is only a portion of what Inrix provides to the customers that pay for its services. The company also brings in, among other sources, weather data, accident data and sensor data in order to provide insights into how traffic is likely to shape up. By factoring in the location, number of cars involved and whether there are injuries, for example, Mistele said Inrix can predict how long an accident will hold up traffic at a given location.

Because it has so much historical information from such a broad set of sources, Inrix is also able discern reality from situations that might confuse models that are only concerned with whether vehicles are moving or stopped. Mistele said the system is smart enough to know that a car sitting at a stoplight on an arterial road is not akin to a car stuck in a traffic jam on a highway, or that taxi cabs and UPS trucks stopping and going are not signs of stop-and-go traffic conditions.

Disrupting industries, and urban sprawl

Aside from consumer navigation apps and those helping commercial drivers manage their delivery schedules, a number of state, regional municipal and even national governments use Inrix’s analytic services to help gauge a number of issues relating to road management. Mistele said the company has actually disrupted the media industry, too, by helping spur the end of traffic helicoptors and “traffic on the nines” on local radio stations. For customers like Clear Channel (s cco), it’s just a lot cheaper, easier and more effective to feed their on-air talent with real-time data and information that someone else has put together.

“This is a space where there has been a complete transformation [thanks to big data and crowd sourcing],” Mistele said.

As great as it is helping people get from Point A to Point B, though, being able to get a handle on traffic data could have even further-ranging effects. Insurance companies can use the data to determine more-accurate rates, and some hedge funds are using Inrix’s data as a means for determining economic health — more drivers during rush hour means more people working, Mistele explained. During the London Olympics, data from mobile devices helped officials monitor the movement of people, not traffic, throughout the city.

A shot of Xerox’s City Manager for parking

As cities continue to grow and congestion becomes an even bigger problem in terms of decreasing productivity and increasing pollution, it’s that kind of data from companies such as Inrix (or competitors Nokia Navteq and TomTom) that could help mitigate the effects. Xerox (s xrx), for example, already uses Inrix data as part of its efforts to help cities improve urban planning around roads, mass transit and parking spaces. The more that city planners know about how, where and when their citizens move, the better they can plan transit systems that address those realities, or that can more easily respond when problems arise.

“Give people better data, give governments better data,” said Mistele, “and you can have a huge impact on one of the biggest of the biggest problems in our society.”

Feature image courtesy of Shutterstock user TonyV3112.