Abigail Keene-Babcock

Moving the Next Billion: In Bangalore, Mapunity Can Put Everyone on the Map – Literally

BTIS logoYesterday, I attended a presentation by Madhav Pai, who was visiting WRI to tell us about a system developed by an organization he was worked with called Mapunity,that is linking together MIS, GIS, and SMS technologies to enhance transportation access and planning in Bangalore.

If this sounds only mildly related to poverty, or particularly technical, it’s only because describing it in other terms seemed insane, trite, or both (other titles for this posting included: “Democracy in Density,” “Beam Me Something Useful” and “Cell Phones in Motion”).
Cell traffic
Basically, the original idea for Mapunity was to come up with an open-source system for Bangalore that would perform functions similar to those provided by Google Maps. Mapunity now offers the SMS-driven Bangalore Traffic Information System, which provides extensive information about bus routes, locations, and traffic congestion in real time, deliverable to cell phones, for free (or at minimal cost, if you?re not with Airtel).

The system works by collecting information on cell phone signal density, and using that as an indicator of congestion at different intersections. While there’s no differentiation between pedestrians and vehicles, both groups contribute to congestion, and both account for huge numbers of ?the next billion,? whether on packed buses, rickshaws, two-wheelers, four-wheelers or two feet.One sign that cell phones are actually good indicators of traffic density (both pedestrian and vehicle) is that cell phone providers agreed to partner with Mapunity to improve data collection and put up their own mini-towers at intersections where BTIS’s density readings were the highest. Why? Because so many people were using their phones while sitting in traffic that the number of dropped calls and network overload at intersections was causing problems for the telecoms.

Since cell phones are now so cheap that they are accessible to nearly everyone in urban areas in India, their potential as a powerful tool for information exchange at every level is beginning to multiply. We’ve seen cell phones used for banking, cell phones used for improved health care, cell phones used for price-shopping and for better supply chain-management. Now what Mapunity hints at is also potentially revolutionary: de-facto GPS-style mapping and information exchange in real-time meets mobility planning.

Transportation in any country impacts quality of life, but it is particularly so for the majority of people in developing countries who rely on public (or informal) transport systems that are over-loaded, inefficient, polluting, and sometimes unreliable. Mobility directly affects economic opportunity and quality of life, since the cost of time spent in transit is linked inseparably with work and home. Shorten the time or ease the cost of movement by substituting information for wasted time spent in transit, and there you have a BOP solution with inherent scale.

Simple, cheap technologies that make better data available on both ends–planner and user–mean that, in theory, efficiency should increase and possibilities multiply for fixing or designing better, lower-cost systems. In India, the low-cost of cell phones (and SIM cards) combined with an un-regulated environment make all sorts of density-sensing solutions possible.