I mean, it was bound to happen at some point or the other, someone coming up with some app that basically leverages social streams of crowdsourced traffic information that social media entities like Gidi Traffic and Traffic Butter have spent all this time cultivating. Heck, I’ve been trying to do it myself with the Ushahidi platform since April — promise not to snicker when you see it. You see, between the scant time and geek cred I had at my disposal, I never quite managed it. That’s why when I learnt of a traffic app that it’s creators are calling Traffikator, I was partly vindicated and partly miffed at the same time. I was on to something, but then these guys got to it before me. It’s one of those times when I wish I had a computer science degree, not one in law.
But before I go on about my failed traffic app idea and the hotshot coders who are about to one-up me (I hate you guys so much right now), we need to go back to where it all began. First there was Lagos. Then it became bogged down with traffic. Then came Twitter, which turned out to be a good place to rant about life’s annoying issues, including Lagos’ traffic. Then somewhere in Lagos, some obscure guy armed with a BlackBerry and laptop had a brainwave. Gidi Traffic was born.
Barring the fact that the dude is given to preserving some aura of mystique by keeping his identity secret, Gidi Traffic, who introduced himself to the BBC as Kaptin Idoko, is no longer obscure these days. In the space of just under a year, the once unknown Twitter handle who began broadcasting traffic updates for the Lagos metropolis in September of 2011 has become an online sensation, at least in the Nigerian twittersphere. His efforts have since earned him a nomination for Life Saving Hero at the Shorty Awards in New York earlier in the year, and currently he’s in the running for Best Use of Social Media at The Future Awards.
Gidi Traffic started out like most people on Twitter, with a few hundred followers, and humbly asking for follow backs to help crowd source the state of traffic across Lagos. However, 100k tweets, and just over 27k followers later, his “please follow back” days are over. His endless stream of traffic updates, which give the impression that he tweets round the clock, have earned him a crowd of devoted and often gushingly grateful followers who religiously depend on him to keep them apprised of the situation on Lagos’ busy roads. Here’s a typical interaction with Gidi_Traffic on Twitter -
Hi @Gidi_Traffic how is traffic from Maryland to Ikeja?
— maryann dedewo (@rarutome) May 13, 2012
— maryann dedewo (@rarutome) May 13, 2012
Pretty cool no? That interaction took place within the space of two minutes, which is fast on account of the Maryland/Ikeja axis being a fairly popular area. By merely looking at Gidi Traffic’s stream, you’d get a general sense of what’s going on in Lagos’ most popular traffic zones.
However, while what Gidi Traffic does is considered genius in some quarters, it’s not particularly hard to do, except maybe if you consider the enormous amount of time he commits to the task (legend has it that he never sleeps nor slumbers). All GT does is ask for traffic updates from his network of followers, track voluntary Lagos traffic updates, and then retweet to the rest of his network. Now I don’t doubt that Gidi Traffic helps people make some sense of Lagos traffic, 27k followers on Twitter says that he’s doing something right. By painstakingly cultivating a relationship with tweeps in Lagos traffic, he has over time positioned himself as the defacto conduit of traffic information on Twitter (non of the copy-cats he’s inspired even comes close). But here’s where the flattery ends. Even a half-assed coder-wannabe like me should be able to write a Twitter bot that tracks and retweets traffic updates.
There’s no contesting that Gidi Traffic is useful — but only up to a certain point, for general information maybe — but as a true real-time traffic information resource, his current strategy has limits.The ask and retweet model works for the most popular routes…they get relatively frequent status updates simply because of the sheer number of people who ply them. But as the popularity of the routes decline, so do the frequency and relevancy of Gidi_Traffic updates for those routes and that is simply because there is less probability that someone within the Gidi Traffic network, who happens to be on the road at that time, will notice the request for information, and will be willing and able to respond in time for the update to be useful to one who requested it.
Reporting Lagos Traffic is great, but it also has to be useful. To be really useful it has to be relevant, personalised and timely (real-time). Going by GT’s current model, finding relevant updates means that you must either -
1. Scroll through his timeline in hopes of finding updates for where you are going. This might work just fine if your route is a really popular one like Third Mainland Bridge or Ikorodu road, but the less popular your route is, the less likely you are going to find an update that helps you make a timely decision about where, when and how to move at any given time of the day, which is really what this is about. Don’t forget, as Gidi Traffic adds followers, his Timeline becomes noisier, which means that you’ll increasingly have to wade through irrelevant tweets to get at updates that are useful.
2. Directly ask Gidi Traffic for an update, via a mention. Of course, he doesn’t know the answer, he’ll just retweet your question. Again, you have to pray that someone who happens to have that information responds in time for it to do you any good.
I’ve always thought that Gidi_Traffic was only scratching the surface of what is possible, and I’ve been trying to get a hold of him for months now, to ask about where he plans to go with this and if he’d be open to working with people in technology to scale the service to the next level of relevance and usability. We could start by tapping into the growing traffic community, aggregating their information and traffic data, interpreting that information (via human curation, semantic analysis and natural language processing techniques) and then presenting it to users via an app in a number of simplified formats – as a general report, an on screen notification, an alert (scheduled via the app or third party services such as a calendar plugged into an API). At some point, I became fascinated with the idea of using location information in traffic tweets to create a geo-spatial map of Lagos traffic — that didn’t work out very well, as I’m sure you’ve seen — but I was really fired up by the possibilities in play here, even if I didn’t have the resources to make it happen. It looked like I would finally get to meet Gidi Traffic at EiE’s New Media and Governance Conference in Abuja. But to true to form, our friend is so keen on the enigmatic persona that he sent his sister to represent him instead. So much for that.
Like anyone in the innovation sector knows, if that new idea of yours is really great, someone else somewhere is probably working on it right now. As it turns out, that is already the case, with the new Traffikator app that Chaos Theory said would be available in Alpha by now (it isn’t yet). In addition to traffic data available on social media channels, Traffikator will also be using GPS technology to crowdsource real-time traffic information, the same strategy for which Waze is popular in the U.S. I’m a bit skeptical about the GPS part though, for that to work, people’s mobile devices must not only have GPS capability, it must also be turned on (and most people in these parts are not really in the habit of leaving GPS turned on).
If/when Traffikator launches, it will be Nigeria’s first social traffic app. And likely not the last. If the idea of using technology to generate real-time traffic intelligence catches on, then Gidi_Traffic’s continued relevance as a real time traffic information resource will come into question.
It looks like traffic was never the endgame for Kaptin in the first place though, it might have just been a platform for a bigger media play. He’s already begun to tweet less and less about traffic, and more about, well, everything else. From relationship advise to acupuncture, topics that are totally traffic-unrelated are beginning to feature more prominently on his timeline. It might have looked like an identity crisis at first, but now it appears to have been a deliberate and well thought out strategy. Gidi Traffic has subtly begun to transform himself into what you might call a social Siri — ask him a question, any question, and you’re likely to get an immediate answer from thousands of people. And his recent promotional relationship with Nokia suggests that he’s actively looking to monetise his audience, one way or the other.
Whatever his game is, I hope it works out for him, because whatever his true calling is, I don’t think it’s traffic, never mind that he’s used that as a ladder to get to where he is now. In any event, he really shouldn’t mind if a few of his more motivated fans have taken it upon themselves to create a more solutions-oriented service that disrupts what appears to be his current model.