Focusing on technology for socio-economic change actually results in market opportunities too – Interview with Ashwin (Founder of mapunity)

Very few startups can dare to build technology that addresses social and economical problems. In the times when VC $$ is pouring in the Indian market, mapunity is building solutions which addresses the socio-economical problems, in a very simplistic way.

One of such solutions from mapunity is BTIS (read the review) – i.e. Bangalore Traffic Information System.
Lets hear directly from Ashwin Mahesh, founder of mapunity on BTIS, mapunity and what’s his future plans are:
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What is mapunity all about?
mapunity is a social entrepreneurial venture incubated at the Indian Institute of Management – Bangalore. Our focus is on building spatial information technologies to address social and economic problems, with a particular focus on governance.
This may seem like a bit of a tangent to the commercial opportunities now available for tech start-up firms. However, we believe that building up capacity within governance institutions is as much a part of the development story of a society, and this area has largely been neglected by most firms.
Ironically, as a result, focusing on technology for socio-economic change actually results in market opportunities too!

Please share the story behind mapunity’s involvement with BTIS.
mapunity is the brains on BTIS. The Bangalore Traffic Police provide the governance anchor and facilitate the project. Airtel provides the infrastructure backbone. The Bangalore Traffic Police were looking for technology solutions to address the rapidly growing traffic in this city last year. One of the options available was to use cell phone volume logs to discover densities of population at key congestion points.

The idea has been floated for use in some western countries, mostly on highways, and a few pilot efforts have been carried out in Norway, Scotland, and in a couple of places in the US. At that time, the Additional Commission of Police (Traffic), Mr M N Reddi asked if such systems were feasible in India too, and whether we should try to import some of this technology. I offered to try to develop a prototype right here in Bangalore, and he was willing to try that out as a first step.

We went to Airtel together, and proposed the idea of creating micro-towers at specific junctions for the express purpose of monitoring congestion in those areas. Airtel was immediately keen, the then-Karnataka CEO Mr Deepak Mehrotra saw an excellent opportunity to use its infrastructure for social responsibility alongside its business interest. So, 11 towers were selected for a pilot project, and Airtel provided its data in real-time for analysis of cell phone users at these junctions.

Once we were confident that congestion at intersections could be monitored in real-time using this method, we proposed a city-wide rollout, and demonstrated the system to the heads of various city agencies. Following their approval, the system in now being rolled out to cover all neighbourhoods, using about 300 or so towers (eventually) to monitor traffic everywhere. Airtel provides the data to us, which we process using our analytical and predictive algorithms, and we make traffic information available out of this. The information can be delivered online, as well as through the mobile phone network itself using a bunch of short codes to access various kinds of information.

In a layman’s terms – please share how do you estimate the driving time from location A to B?
The time taken for any journey can be thought of like this. Imagine you are going from A to F via B, C, D and E. So the total time taken by you is the time taken for traveling AB, BC, CD, DE, and EF, plus any waiting times at points B, C, D, and E.
Using the cell phone tower logs, we monitor the waiting times that people spend at various intersections, and we monitor the movement times between two adjacent intersections.
We sum this up as a total and give you an estimate of the time your journey is likely to take along this route.

How accurate and real time are these timings?
They are in real-time; we receive and process the data within 2 to 5 minutes of it being logged on the Airtel servers, and this can be further improved to within 1 minute. Accuracy – you have to think of it in a particular way. The data is a measurement of actual times taken for travel as measured NOW, it’s not the same as the time your journey would take, because you are only now starting your journey. What we are saying is that the most recently measured travel times are likely to be the same as the ones you’ll experience if you start now.

Often, actual numbers are not super-critical, even qualitative information can be very useful. For instance, if I simply know a certain junction is congested, I may avoid going there. Nobody wants to drive into a jam, unless they have no other alternative (this is often not the case), so a lot of the people contributing to jams are there without intending to be there, and if you can simply steer them away, some of the jam can be relieved faster.

Wherever you have more than one option, for any portion of your journey, you can use BTIS to query the alternatives and take your pick. On key routes (such as from the city centre to the airport) we ourselves give you the two options and guide you.

Do you plan to expose these services to third parties?
Our goal, all along, has been to make the data available through as many different modes as possible.If it’s economically viable, we’ll choose as many diverse delivery options as possible.

Any plans to build mobile system for real time traffic services (something like real time traffic for Google Maps on mobile)?
Currently, the system is available in real-time on your mobile phone. Some device makers have expressed an interest in building these into navigation systems for high end phones, and we may do that.

Please share your plans to expand to other areas/cities.
We recognize that the solution is valuable in many places. Actually, there are even more powerful uses of cell phone logs than real-time data alone.

Planning can be considerably more efficiently once you know where people live and work, and cell phone logs let you discover such patterns easily, without physical surveys that take months.

A few other cities are on our radar. Airtel itself is keen on taking it to one or two cities, and we have had independent inquiries from two cities. I think we should be careful not to reach beyond our ability too quickly, but if the opportunities to help other cities also come up, we’ll certainly take them up.

Please share your funding status.
We do not have any start-up funding. Various entities that are supportive of our social focus offer to support our work. Airtel, for instance, is putting tower infrastructure and computer hardware into the project, and also under-writing a portion of our costs.

A couple of foundations support mapunity’s other work, and we try to create time and money from such other funding to push forward in several directions. I think that if we do good work addressing compelling problems, there will be money to pay for it.

Please share your future plans.
mapunity is interested in range of different areas where its GIS know-how can be put to use effectively, and transport information systems are only one direction in this.
We’re also, in parallel, building a public health information system, an energy mapping and monitoring system, a disaster information system, an eco-informatics portal, etc.

We’re also building a generic platform that any community can freely use to create, share and manage its spatial data (mapunity.org), and we feel these other directions too will be compelling solutions in the coming months and years.
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Interestingly, mapunity launches it’s CarPool service today (June 22nd).
Also: Have a look at few interesting projects mapunity is working on.

tags: BTIS, Mapunity

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