TRACKING TRAFFIC ONLINE CAN BE ‘STICKY’ PROPOSITION

By: Jennie L. Phipps

Web Sites Offer Audience-Drawing Highway Info


Car accidents and traffic tie-ups have always been the stuff of radio, with newspapers only occasionally weighing in with day-after photographs of the grisly aftermath. But now newspapers are giving a radio a run for its money with online traffic monitoring services.

Tom Davidson, general manger for Tribune Interactive in Hampton Roads, Va., managed the company’s project to put traffic on all of its newspaper and TV Web sites. He spent months evaluating the possibilities.

The final decision came down to three competitors:

o Etak.com (http://www.etak.com)
o SmartRoute Systems (http://www.smartroute.com)
o TrafficStation Inc. (http://www.trafficstation.com)

Ultimately, Tribune went with Etak, but Davidson said he liked all three from the standpoint of what they offered and from his perceptions about their long-term viability. “After the Internet meltdown, we wanted to feel comfortable that anyone we went with had sufficient resources to survive,” he said.

The deciding factor became utility to the user. It’s a question that each online newspaper will have to decide for itself because not every company serves every market and the road and traffic situation isn’t the same everywhere. As Davidson said, “It is one thing to have cool technology and ideas, but does the company really have the best data, displayed in the most useful way for my particular city?”

All three of the companies that were on Tribune Interactive’s “A list” essentially offer the same services: digital map data and real time traffic information gathered via a variety of reporting techniques, including the tried and true – scanners, reporters on the scene and tipsters who call in with information. Beyond that, each of the services has slightly different bells and whistles.

Etak

Etak, a unit of Tele Atlas, is partnered with Westwood One, which owns more than 7,500 radio stations and Metro Networks/Shadow Broadcast Services. Based in Menlo Park, Calif., Etak provides the digital mapping while Metro Networks’ branded Shadow Traffic gathers traffic information in more conventional ways. An online newspaper customer gets the advantage of both services.

Users log on and view a map of their general area, the larger region, or a completely different part of the country. They can click on interactive icons to find out where an incident was reported, the cause, when it was reported, and when it is expected to clear. They can also get reports on road congestion, travel delays, construction, weather-related road conditions, and major events that may affect the drive, such as sports or concerts.

Tribune Interactive is Etak’s first newspaper customer although lots of TV and radio stations rely on it.

SmartRoute Systems

SmartRoute, based in Cambridge, Mass., has signed up a number of large online newspapers, including boston.com, philly.com, washingtonpost.com, and cincinnati.com.

SmartRoute Systems was recently acquired by Westwood One. Besides the usual array of traffic information, the company also supplies transit information, turn-by-turn street directions, flight arrival and departure times, and rental car, hotel, restaurant, and entertainment listings. The information can be delivered to all kinds of wireless devices.

TrafficStation Inc.

TrafficStation Inc. has one major newspaper client, the New York Post. MSN.com is also a customer. It offers color-coded maps with accident reports. Users can register their routes and receive personalized reports via cell phone or e-mail.

Keith Friedenberg, director of marketing, says the company has a great interest in working with more newspapers. The typical business arrangement might include set-up and monthly fees, plus a fee for page views.

Currently, TrafficStation is in 28 markets. The Los Angeles-based company aggregates datastreams from departments of transportation, police and fire scanners, weather advisory services, surveillance by plane, and local reporters. Most of the company’s clients are businesses with fleets, including trucking companies and firms with delivery routes.

The streaming video alternative

If mapping isn’t what you have in mind, your newspaper might consider checking to see if the department of transportation in your state has video cameras at key intersections in its region and cutting a deal to stream that video to users. That’s what KTNV-TV News 13, a Journal Broadcast Group station in Las Vegas did. Kristin Foate, general manager, says it’s a big hit with users on YourInsideLasVegas.com.

Users pick their location from a dropdown list and watch the traffic move (or not move) through the intersection. No plug-ins are required and the frames change at about 1 per second with DSL or cable access and once every 20 seconds with a 28.8 dial-up connection. So far, 20 key locations are covered, and the station expects to add 28 more in the next few months.

Henry Valentino III, president of SmartConnect.net, a Las Vegas data communications company that specializes in video security and surveillance, has worked with KTNV to put the system together and is hosting it. Valentino says it was tricky to provide 20 streams at once, and his company had to write special software to do it. But those technical issues were nothing compared to the hassles involved in getting government officials’ approval, he said.

The station is also adding cameras at some entertainment locations around the city, Foate said. “It’ll be fun. We’re tapping into people’s voyeurism.”

The station intends to sell advertising around these cams, but it won’t sell ads around the traffic ones. Foate is firm about that. “We want to avoid the appearance of making money from a public service,” she said.

If do-it-yourself video sounds daunting, Eyecast, a northern Virginia company that operates Highwaynet (www.highwaynet.com) in cooperation with the Virginia Department of Transportation, is serving up traffic videos to 1.2 million visitors a month and looking for new customers. Mike Tobin, vice president of marketing for Eyecast and also general manager of Highwaynet, said the company can provide streaming traffic video at the rate of five frames per second with a 28.8 dialup connection. Only a browser is needed with no special plug-ins. Eyecast has been selling the product nationally for about six months, but hasn’t signed up any newspapers yet.

Tobin thinks that streaming traffic information will surely drive plenty of traffic to sites, but he sees the biggest potential in advertising sales – selling ads to local businesses like dry cleaners and pizzerias that are in the immediate area of the cameras. “You can deliver an ad to people who are going to be in the area. You don’t have to develop a ton of traffic to make that pay,” he said.

The digital sensor plan

In what is probably the most ambitious of traffic monitoring projects, Traffic.com in partnership with the U.S. Department of Transportation, is building a network of 20- to 30-foot high traffic sensors along roadbeds in key locations nationwide. The system is fully deployed in Pittsburgh, where it monitors travel times and average speeds on key routes throughout the region. Traffic.com has partnered with PittsburghLive, the online entity of the Tribune Review Publishing Co., which publishes seven daily newspapers in the Pittsburgh area. Traffic.com also has television and radio partners.

Greg Kolton, manager of advertising and public relations for Traffic.com, based in Wayne, Pa., says the goal of his business is to be up and running by the time in-car navigation systems are commonplace.



Jennie L. Phipps (jlphipps@bignet.net) is an independent writer and editor based in Farmington Hills, Mich.



Copyright 2001, Editor & Publisher.

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