1. A new mobile map captures ‘Internet of moving things’

A new mobile map captures ‘Internet of moving things’

Welcome to the world of data in motion, all the time. A data-intensive mapping service from Urban Engines that was announced...

By: | Published: February 12, 2015 12:05 AM

Welcome to the world of data in motion, all the time. A data-intensive mapping service from Urban Engines that was announced early this week carries information about several cities in the US, as well as route maps for getting around and directions in augmented reality, using just the processing power and storage of the phone.

As impressive as that seems, the underlying technology used to figure out where things are have a bigger impact. The augmented reality function is particularly useful for walking directions. Using the compass and accelerometer in a smartphone, it’s possible to look through the view finder of the camera and see arrows that indicate the route one should go through, say, a subway station to come up the correct exit. Connect to a cloud computing service, and it can also give information about things like traffic congestion.

The company’s goal in creating the free smartphone app, which also has consumer-friendly features like lists of frequently visited locations, is to create a framework that other companies, like delivery services, can eventually pay to use. “In the last decade we optimised a lot of data for the web, and now we’re optimising for mobility,” said Shiva Shivakumar, chief executive and a founder of Urban Engines. “This is about the Internet of moving things.”

That may sound like another attempt to coin a catchphrase, but it’s actually an important distinction. Urban Engines’ founders come from intensive computer science backgrounds. Shivakumar was at Google from 2001 to 2010 and worked on projects like AdSense and CloudApps.

Initially, the maps will be available for 10 United States cities. Longer term, the company hopes to build out offerings for places overseas. In some countries, like India, the lack of connectivity could make a map largely based in the phone particularly attractive.

Urban Engines has already done a lot of data-intensive work around the movement of buses, subways and passengers in Rio de Janeiro and Singapore. In doing that work, the company developed a new kind of database, which treats the information like objects in motion, called a Space/Time Engine. The engine is being released as an open-source project.

Data in motion is a tough problem, compared with placing search ads or calculating Facebook likes. Those have lots of data, but in one place. Data that is mapped in motion is often incomplete and contradictory, because of bad information about what is moving around. Meanings like “how fast are passengers getting across town?” can change, depending on whether one bus has passed another.

“Things in the real world are super noisy,” said Balaji Prabhakar, chief scientist and a founder of Urban Engines. He is also a professor of computer science at Stanford. “There is a lot of crude data that has to be removed, losses in accuracy, bad signals, inadequate information.” The new engine, he says, helps address these problems. They are increasingly important, as delivery and logistics services like Uber taxis and DoorDash food delivery attempt to remake conventional businesses in the mold of data-driven tech companies.

One of the first functions the database could generate, Prabhakar said, would be a new kind of carpooling tool, “If you live within two miles of my route, or driving you wouldn’t take me more than 10 minutes out of my way, we are potential matches to get to work faster, with fewer cars. We just need ways to figure this out.”

By Quentin Hardy

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