We, the people of Lebanon, have declared our dependence on the automobile and hold this truth to be self-evident: there will be traffic. While some dissident factions have started calling for radical change -- groups like the National Campaign for Sustainable Transportation and CyclingCircle, most of us are still stuck with this imperfect union between body and machine, “dumb” and frustrated, day in, day out.

One small band of techies has emerged -- two handling product development, and two on the business side -- and they think they have an answer. Though it may not fix everything -- as their quirky, self-made marketing video lightheartedly testifies -- the hope is that with Tari’ak, our perennial problem with traffic may become a little more manageable, at the very least.

The app has a simple premise: wouldn't it be great if you could get a sense of traffic conditions before even stepping into your car? We do this all the time with weather apps, why not traffic?

This isn't a totally new idea; the UK Highway Agency, for example, feeds data to its ‘Hands-Free Traffic App,’ and Google Maps has the ability to track traffic in some cities. But Tari’ak co-founder Rami Khawandi still sees a need for his app, the idea for which emerged from “a cocktail of enthusiasm and disappointment,” he told Beirut.com.

The key to understanding what makes Tari’ak different is in its data sources. As far as we know, the Traffic Management Center only monitors the roads visually, and has mainly fed their insights onto Twitter. Instead, Tari’ak takes a decentralized approach. Its data sources are its users, just like Google Maps, except that, instead of relying on GPS, Tari’ak uses the part of your phone that tells your apps whether you’re holding it sideways.

According to Khawandi: “The app gets notified whenever the user moves a significant distance. It wakes up, measures the movement activity of the device using only the motion sensors, because using the GPS constantly would drain the battery. Based on the forces acting on the device and measured by the accelerometer, if our algorithm classifies this motion data as that of a vehicle, it will use the GPS momentarily and intermittently throughout the journey to report the speed and location to our server. Once the journey is over, the app goes back to sleep. All of this happens automatically.”

The Tari’ak team has tested and tinkered with their algorithm, and are confident their method works. “The first challenge,” Khawandi explained, “is to know when to ignore or when to directly publish a piece of data. For example, if a device is known to be in the middle of an automotive journey but moving at 0 km/h, our system waits for a second traffic report to arrive within a short time frame in order to consider the first one true. Otherwise it is ignored. This verifies that a user is actually stuck in traffic (or at a traffic light) along with another user, and not just parked on the side of the road waiting for the Nescafé car-window delivery. We handle a ton of such edge cases.”

So what has Tari’ak achieved so far? “In Beirut we get an average of four traffic reports/hour for every street,” Khawandi told me. “The busiest streets receive over 20 reports/hour, whereas the least receive a report every couple of hours. In total, we receive over 10,000 reports each day from over 6,000 unique devices all across Lebanon, having had over 30,000 downloads so far. This enables us to cover over 5,300 roads in Lebanon excluding narrow alleys.”

Khawandi has big plans for this data. Though the app has no backers or investors, he sees a market for the sort of insights his app can generate: “We have reliable, accurate, real-time traffic data for Lebanon that no one else has. We have received interest from media, engineering, governmental and academic organizations who could benefit from our traffic data. In cases of unfunded academic research, we even offer it up for free.”

Tari’ak is certainly attracting a lot of attention, having been recently named among Executive Magazine’stop 20 science and technology entrepreneurial companies in Lebanon.

In the context of this high stakes game of big data, Khawandi made sure to emphasize that he and his team take user privacy seriously. “While the app does use Location Services on your device, it does not collect ANY information that can identify who you are as a person. There is no registration, e-mail, phone number, name or social media account needed to use the app. You just download it and it works. Therefore, we do not know the identity of our users and accordingly cannot track people. Our data is completely anonymous.”

Tari’ak is available for download through iOS and Android devices.

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