Light Unto the Nations: Israeli-Invented Pocket GPS Loggers Earn the Attention of International Governments

by Hillel Fendel, Israel National News

Governments around the world are closely following Israel's Transportation Ministry, checking to see how its newly-invented pocket GPS loggers will help predict the country's future transportation needs

The Ministry is currently conducting an 18-month survey, checking citizens' travel habits in real-time using pocket GPS (Global Positioning System) recorders invented specifically for this purpose. The survey will ultimately cover some 5 percent of the population, in different parts of the country at different times. The objective is to amass a data bank of travel statistics, which will pave the way for solidly-based educated decisions on issues such as new roads and highways, light railways, bicycle lanes and the like.

A Light Unto the Nations

Yehoshua Birotker, Director of Transportation Planning for the Jerusalem Municipality, said that many governments are closely following the use of the new GPS loggers: "This is something that is totally new in the world of transportation surveys. People are generally asked to write down where they went, or try to reconstruct their day later, but they are very prone to forgetting. This GPS is a totally new concept, and all state governments in the United States are interested in what we are doing and waiting for our results. In Europe as well: There was a convention in Belgium several months ago, where our new system was discussed. We are definitely a 'light unto the nations' in this area."

This writer was introduced to the project when a young Transportation Ministry surveyor named Ariel knocked on his door one day last week. "You have been chosen in a random manner to take part in Israel's real-time transportation survey," he dryly announced. To sweeten the pot, he added, my family and I would be compensated for our time with free trips to the zoo or the like - but he could have saved himself the trouble: my curiosity had been sparked.

After asking where we work or study, how we get there (car/bus/bicycle/walking or other), where we have traveled recently and the like, and after assuring complete confidentiality, Ariel explained the crux of the matter. Showing me a square black box about the size of a packet of 3" diskettes, he said, "The Transportation Ministry has designed this special GPS unit, which not only tracks and records where you are at any given moment and for how long, but it also guesses whether you arrived there by car or by walking."

I and all the over-15-year-olds in my household were to wear or carry the box on our person for a given 24-hour period. Turning it on required only pressing a button and exposing it to the sky; from then on, it was to work on its own.

Ariel was anxious to impress me with what he expected the survey to do, and told me that based on the results of the previous survey 12 years ago, the number of cars predicted to use the new Route 9 bypassing northwestern Jerusalem daily between 7 and 8 a.m. was roughly 1,200, very close to the actual number that currently use it. Birotker later confirmed that the predictions were, in fact, impressively accurate.

Ariel learned this and other information, including how to operate the GSS loggers, as well as download, edit and process its information, in an eight-day course provided by the Transportation Ministry. The course dealt with Jerusalem geography, traffic problems and solutions, urban planning, and the like.

Birutker explained that every major transportation project is implemented only after checking a number of factors, such as savings in time, air pollution, buses that will have to be added or removed, parking places that will have to be added or removed, car accidents, and more. "We can say roughly that if the sum total of the savings is a certain factor more than the cost of the project, it will be approved," Birutker said. "Each aspect is checked carefully by engineers, urban and traffic planners, economists. Even so, certain items, such as safety, are very hard to quantify."

I told our surveyor that our family was not very representative of a "traveling" family, as those members who live at home spend most of their time within a few hundred meters of home, at work, play or school. He explained, however, that the "wonders of statistics" can deal with such cases, and that "everything evens out at the end."

As it turned out, we in fact made our mark on one extreme of the statistical spectrum – namely, the other extreme. It turned out that the day chosen as our "survey day" saw us travel over an hour away to a family celebration, our car suffer two minor "disabilities" and delays, and a detour in the "wrong" direction to help some passengers make up for a missed bus.

This presented our GPS loggers with a challenge, but they met it bravely – as we saw the next day when Ariel returned to download the information and "finesse" it. This process, in fact, took more time than we had expected.

"Looks like you traveled across half the country," he said, observing the route drawn by the logger on its computerized map. "And what's this?" he asked, pointing to a 14-minute stop at a particular spot along the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway. After trying to reconstruct our journey, I remembered: "Right, that's where the car overheated and we spent a few minutes re-watering the radiator," I said, impressed with the program's recall (and mine).

True, it thought we were in Beit Hilkiyah when really we had stopped in Yad Binyamin, less than a mile away. But mistakes like that appeared to be rare, and were more than compensated for by some of the program's impressive capabilities. For instance, when Ariel asked where I was for about 40 minutes that morning, and I told him it was our local synagogue, he entered the information – which then appeared automatically in the listing of my 20-minute stop at the same place later that evening.

After a few more minutes of coordinating our family members and other passengers, and who went where when, the information was saved, on its way to central processing by the Jerusalem Transportation Master Plan team. The hope is that it will result in new and effective ways to get around, in light of traffic jams that, as of now, appear to increase in direct proportion to the number of new roads.

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