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Smartphone data collection could help highway planning

Yan Huang, Associate Professor of  Computer Science and EngineeringCurrent and reliable data on traffic movements play a key role in transportation modeling and planning.

Yan Huang, associate professor of computer science and engineering, left, received a grant award forabout $164,000 from the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) to research use of smartphones in conducting travel surveys.

In Huang’s project, "Evaluation of Existing Smartphone Applications and Data Needs for Travel Surveys," her team of researchers will compare pioneering smartphone travel survey applications and assess their effectiveness in collecting data required for travel-demand modeling purposes.

Applications included in Huang’s study will be evaluated for the resolution of GPS data, the survey mode, accuracy of data, storage limitation, types of data, battery life and burden on participants.

“When a new technology comes into the picture, there are always potential opportunities,” Huang said. “The traditional forms of travel data collection limit the modeling data that can be obtained efficiently. This is the opportunity for the transportation agencies to step forward, be able to obtain more robust data, and work toward better planning and operations.”

Travel surveys in which drivers volunteer to log their transportation habits - including time of travel, length of trips, location and length of stops along the way, reason for travel, vehicle used and number of passengers - have traditionally been conducted using paper-and-pencil documentation or, more recently, computer-aided survey methods. However, both methods are costly, time-consuming and labor-intensive for survey conductors and they place a significant burden on survey participants.

Using smartphone applications would ease the process of conducting travel surveys by making data collection more passive, requiring less burden on survey participants and allowing for more robust data gathering. 

According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project’s 2011 survey, 83 per cent of U.S. adults owned a cell phone and 42 percent of those were smartphones, making smartphones a good candidate for facilitating travel data collection.

But participation presents challenges as well, including the threat of drained smartphone batteries and privacy concerns for survey volunteers. 

“Privacy issues become very complex on this type of survey collection,” Huang said. “We are looking at how privacy has traditionally been dealt with and ways to use algorithms to cloak information at private places. There are technology issues and policy issues as well, and that is a very important aspect.”

Huang’s research will yield a complete assessment of all aspects of using smartphones for travel surveys, including survey design, duration, quality and participant issues, and incentives to increase the survey response rate. The project continues through August 2014.

— Amelia Jaycen, Publications Intern, Office of Research and Economic Development

Posted on: Thu 04 April 2013

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