UPDATED: Crowdsourcing Brings Better Traffic Data to Google Maps, Even Without iPhone Data

maps_2009-25-08_141258Updated: While James is enjoying the inclusion of Sprint Navigator on the Palm Pre, I’m still a bigger user of Google Maps. I have on-board navigation in my SUV, so I’m generally in good shape for directions — just not so much for traffic. That changes today as Google Maps gains traffic data for all U.S. highways and arterials.

The data isn’t just from a standard traffic service either. Google is leveraging all of those Google Maps clients by crowdsourcing the data:

“Imagine if you knew the exact traffic speed on every road in the city — every intersection, backstreet and freeway on-ramp — and how that would affect the way you drive, help the environment and impact the way our government makes road planning decisions. This idea, which we geeks call “crowdsourcing,” isn’t new. Ever since GPS location started coming to mainstream devices, people have been thinking of ways to use it to figure out how fast the traffic is moving.”

The first typical concern when a company starts using the data of its many users is one of privacy. Google seems to have that under control as it only uses anonymous speed and location info at the individual user level. It then aggregates nearby data points to use for the actual traffic data. Google says it also only uses data from phones if a handset owner has enabled location services. To add just a bit more privacy and security, I’d like to see there be an opt-out to send back location data to Google, but I’m not overly concerned by this omission.

Google-maps-iphoneAfter pressing the “Show Traffic” button, I can already see the real-time traffic on my Palm Pre, which will come in handy on the road. Many of the smaller roads in my area that previously didn’t show traffic are appearing now. I wonder if some cows escaped to cause a traffic jam near me. There’s never any traffic where I live.

The new traffic coverage is already available in Google Maps on all handsets, with one noteable exception. – Apple’s iPhone. Obviously, the traffic data that used to appear on the iPhone will continue to appear, but it won’t be as widespread as you can tell by this screenshot. Compared to the one from my Palm Pre for the same area, you can see that the data is limited.

Update: As pointed out by Otto in the comments, the arterial traffic data is available on the iPhone when zooming in a little more. The Google Mobile Blog mentioned a lack of support on the iPhone, so I reached out to them directly for clarification. A Google spokesperson replied with this statement: “The Google Maps application that comes pre-installed on the iPhone can display live traffic, but Apple devices do not participate in the traffic crowdsourcing.”

Based on this, it sounds to me like the iPhone can take advantage of the additional real time traffic data on smaller roads, but doesn’t contribute traffic data back to Google. If my take is accurate, Google is missing out on a huge number of traffic data points, given the large number of iPhones in the U.S. I’ve updated the headline to reflect this thought.

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