Commuters check Google Maps for traffic updates the same way they check the weather app for rain predictions. And for good reasons: By pooling information from millions of drivers already on the road, Google can paint an impressively accurate real-time portrait of congestion. Meanwhile, historical numbers can roughly predict when your morning commutes may be particularly bad.
But “the information we extract from traffic data has been exhausted,” said Zhen (Sean) Qian, who directs the Mobility Data Analytics Center at Carnegie Mellon University. He thinks that to more accurately predict how gridlock varies from day to day, there’s a whole other set of data that cities haven’t mined yet: electricity use.
“Essentially we all use the urban system—the electricity, water, the sewage system and gas—and when people use them and how heavily they do is correlated to the way they use the transportation system,” he said. How we use electricity at night, it turns out, can reveal when we leave for work the next day. “So we might be able to get new information that helps explain travel time one or two hours in advance by having a better understanding of human activity.”
In a recent study
in the journal Transportation Research Part C
, Qian and his student Pinchao Zhang used 2014 data to demonstrate how electricity usage patterns can predict when peak congestion begins on various segments of a major highway in Austin, Texas—the 14th most congested city
in the U.S. They crunched 79 days worth of electricity usage data for 322 households (stripped of all private information, including location), feeding it into a machine learning algorithm that then categorized the households into 10 groups according to the time and amount of electricity use between midnight and 6 a.m. By extrapolating the most critical traffic-related information about each group for each day, the model then predicted what the commute may look like that morning.