Friday, 2 May 2008

A position of power

I’ve just got back to London from Chicago O'Hare airport where I was driven from Milwaukee. My driver was Joe Sturonas, CTO of PKWare. He liked to refer to himself as a bit of a geek when it comes to number crunching and IT (he may well not like me referring to him as ‘my driver’ however). Joe studied Artificial Intelligence whilst at University, and subsequently worked for the Illinois Department of Transportation's Traffic Systems Center (TSC) before ending up where he is now. [I hope the details here are right, I blame jetlag and artistic license for inaccuracies.]

The Chicago based TSC has sensors on most of the main routes surrounding the city. These count cars and their speeds, giving a fair indication of congestion levels in each of the lanes on Joe's commute to and from work. The TSC used static data, daily counts and average speeds to designate 2 different types of roads for different types of road user – these are Express (E) and Local (L). Thus on Joe’s route to work each morning, the first part of the journey he could choose from 2 L roads and 1 E, and later on 2 E roads and 1 L. Once a lane was picked, it was impossible and impractical to change. Most people ended up picking either L or E and sticking in that until the end of their journey for the sake of getting anywhere at all.

Using his knowledge of the transport department's IT systems, Joe managed to pick up transmissions (legally) from traffic sensors in the roads. He then applied a simple algorithm to the traffic reports using his AI knowledge, and programmed his PC to send him a text message each morning, telling him which route to take, in the form of either EE, EL, LE, or LL, in this way he would choose which lanes to take at the beginning and end of his journey. He even went as far as factoring in weather and seasonal conditions, holidays, etc.

He calculated over time that in an average week he was saving between 90 and 120 minutes compared to the 'average' commuter, taking pot luck and sticking with it. This was a huge saving and meant Joe could spend more time at work, AND more time with his family, possibly why he made it to CTO whilst remaining a devoted family man. Needless to say, this also gave Joe excellent geek bragging rights, which he duly exercised at a party amongst commuter friends. Obviously the idea was to share his funny little idea and get some respect, but, also rather obviously in hindsight, his friends nearly ripped his arms off to get a piece of the time-saving action, frustrated as they were with the extra 20-40 minutes in the car during their working day.

Joe complied and allowed a select group of his friends to receive the same information as he did every morning, but took his idea no further. So what stopped him? Joe, being a mathematician and logician by nature, realised the fatal flaw in commercialising his invention. What happens when more than his select group of friends gets interested? Of course, the routes become just as blocked, if not more so than the ones being reported on. So the algorithm has to be real time, perhaps different for each subscriber. This was far too complex a problem to warrant the launch of a company, so the idea died out when Joe moved jobs and his commute reversed, out to Milwaukee.

This neatly demonstrated the value of requirements and reality to me, something I thought was a great idea, was great only if you remain the one single person using it. Not so profitable if you are a vendor trying to sell it. Joe also pointed out that there was a point of ‘critical mass’ of subscribers to your service, where if you know that you are controlling the majority of commuters’ traffic decisions, in Joe's words, it becomes 'less of a math problem, more of a routing problem, and of course I get QoS'. I noted that he was only one step away from making his own weather machine with that sort of approach, to which he laughed - "MWAHAHAHAHAAA!".

Dr. Joe Evil dropped me off at the airport and sped off into the distance, leaving me to ponder if he really was controlling the weather already. A crack of thunder in the distance and a puff of smoke where Joe’s car had been a moment before confirmed my suspicions.

Thanks for the lift Joe, and for the good weather on the flight back.

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