Open Source Helps Stop Traffic Accidents

To send help to accidents faster, engineers at the University of Maryland are using an open-source database to connect disparate traffic data.

Sometimes, the only thing more damaging than a terrible car accident on a major expressway is the thousands of cars whose passengers slow down to take in the misfortunes of their fellow motorists. Rubbernecking is the term, of course, and a group of engineering students and their professor at the University of Maryland have decided to do something about it: They're enabling a number of Washington, D.C.-area traffic agencies (and their disparate systems) to communicate with one another quickly, by standardizing their information through an open-source, PostgreSQL database and mapping system.

The ultimate goal: By looking at each other's data in real-time, the agencies can make intelligent decisions about how to quickly clear away accidents and make sure drivers have nothing to look at but the open road. The project is tapping into $1.9 million in federal funds.

"Up until now, all the agencies have been doing their own thing," says Michael Pack, laboratory director of the Clark School's Center for Advanced Transportation Technology Laboratory at the University of Maryland, where he and 45 engineering students have been working on the project.

In the D.C. area, there are four major traffic centers: Virginia, Maryland, D.C., the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, as well as many local county centers. All the centers are equipped with their own computer systems and method of monitoring traffic and accidents, using CCTV and road sensors to measure speed and the volume of cars. "If they think the accident is big enough, they'd pick up the phone and call someone in a neighboring jurisdiction to let them know about it, but it was generally hit or miss," Pack says.

So Pack and his group of engineers used an open-source database and an open-source mapping service from the University of Minnesota to take all the information from each agency's database, translate it into one easy format, and push it back to each agency so they can see each other's traffic information in real-time. In doing so, if an accident occurred in Maryland near the Virginia boarder, Virginia would be immediately alerted to it because Maryland's data is fed straight into its system, and vice versa.

Though Pack's group has created a Web-based version of the system that agencies are free to use, they also have the option of integrating the data back into their homegrown systems, should they feel wedded to it (which may happen in governmental IT from time to time). "The idea is not to have a second system so each of them has 20 monitors at each location," says Pack. "Everything is going to be pushed back into all their native systems."

The traffic alert system has been used by some agencies in a prototype form for the past month. Pack says they'll measure its first results while making tweaks to the system.

"Not everything works 100 percent yet, but since it's open source, it's easier to access code and change things. We want the system to be interactive and user-friendly."

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Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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