Boston's partnership with the traffic-monitoring app Waze has already allowed the city to crack down on one obnoxious phenomenon: double parking. For an encore, the city's number-crunchers are hoping to tweak traffic lights and road signs to ease chronic traffic jams.
Waze, owned by Google Inc., offers consumers a smartphone app that tracks vehicle traffic and can suggest alternate routes. It monitors traffic problems by collecting GPS data from users on the network, and lets them report things they see along the way, such as broken-down cars or police cruisers waiting to spring a speed trap.
In exchange for traffic data from some 400,000 Boston-area users on the Waze network — no individuals are identified — the city is feeding the company information about planned road closings and emergency route changes.
Traffic planners were able to immediately use a Waze Web portal with the new data in the city's traffic management center, which controls more than 500 traffic lights.
"Previously, they had either field reports from staff or the police department, or an ability to look at some traffic cameras to see where traffic jams were occurring," said Matthew Mayrl, Boston's deputy chief information officer. "They're now able to get the same information that you would see on Waze right there, and start making some adjustments."
For a next step, the city decided to pipe the Waze data directly into its larger data analysis system, which Mayor Martin J. Walsh has made a point of integrating into city services since assuming office in January.
Rather than logging onto a website to find out what Waze is reporting, the city now automatically ingests the Waze data every five minutes, continuously building a database that stretches back to last year.
One of the early tests was a pilot project meant to crack down on double-parked cars. Waze data showed city officials when drivers were reporting cars on the shoulder and allowed the Transportation Department to dispatch bike-riding officers to prompt them to move along.
While it proved successful at getting enforcement officers to chase down parking violators, Mayrl said the project's impact on overall traffic flow was inconclusive. The bigger effect, he said, will probably come from ongoing experiments in altering traffic signs or the timing of traffic lights.
"Storrow Drive at 5:30 p.m. is going run slow, right? And people on Waze are going to say, 'Oh, there's a traffic jam here,' " Mayrl said. "What's of interest to traffic engineers is, OK — are they reporting 50 percent more jams than last time? Because that's an area where we need to focus on what we can do."
Waze spokeswoman Paige Fitzgerald said Boston has "really been a pioneer" and is one of the most active of 35 government agencies that initially partnered with the app on traffic data.
"I hear a lot of rhetoric around leveraging big data to ease congestion — this is a near universal problem facing cities around the world," she said. "How Boston stands apart from the crowd is they have been able to implement it quickly and demonstrate results."