When Lewis and Clark set out across America in 1804, they carried with them a number of different maps, including what just might be the earliest known attempt at aggregating travel information into a single navigation tool. The tool was the now-famous “blank” map, created especially for them in 1803 by surveyor and cartographer Nicholas King.
King's map was intended to be a compilation of all that was known about the area that lay roughly between the mouth of the Ohio River and the Pacific Ocean and from New Orleans to just north of Lake Winnipeg. As author Joseph Mussulman notes, however, the almost featureless map “showed that the geography of the land…was indeed a blank in the minds of Euro Americans” (www.lewis-clark.org).
I could not help thinking about that blank map when I set out to visit INRIX, Inc. (www.inrix.com) one sunny day this July. Like Nicholas King, INRIX is in the business of aggregating and analyzing information for travelers, in this case traffic-related information from hundreds of public and private sources, which they translate into real-time, historical and predictive traffic data for a wide variety of customers.
While King worked alone with maps from earlier explorers plus stories from trappers, traders and others who had ventured west, today INRIX uses computerized Bayesian statistical analysis models to integrate and analyze data from over 650,000 GPS-enabled vehicles and virtually all of the Dept. of Transportation road sensors. While King's finished map was not much more than an inaccurate outline of the territory indicating a few rivers and settlements, INRIX provides information about traffic speed on specific road segments for over 750,000 miles of U.S. roadways. What is more, speeds are provided in increments as short as five minutes and are specific to the actual day of the week.
To improve accuracy, the company also factors in data about other variables that can impact traffic flow, such as the weather and holidays. “We add in things like the weather and special events,” Kush Parikh, vp-business development for INRIX told me. “In Washington, DC, we include information about when the legislature is in session. For Las Vegas reports, we include information about scheduled conventions.”
“I wish Mr. King could hear this,” I found myself thinking. “He would drop his quill pen in amazement.”
Or would he? Certainly Mr. King would be over-whelmed by the technology, but I bet he could appreciate the marvelous accomplishment of aggregating so much information from so many sources to produce a single, very useful and usable information tool. It is something he tried to do himself on a much smaller scale, after all.
Maybe, like me, he would also stop to wonder about the relationship between people and the tools they use. Did those who made their way through a largely unknown landscape with only a blank map to guide them view the world differently than people today — people who rely on highly sophisticated tools to travel through a complex and changing environment?
“What do you think?” I asked the invisible Mr. King as we left INRIX and merged into the rush hour traffic. “Did we lose our capacity for wonder and exploration when we filled in your blank map? Or have we just struck out on a new voyage of discovery with a new map — a map that includes everything we know now but leaves out a wealth of fascinating detail that other explorers will discover and add in years to come?”
“Watch where you're going,” said Mr. King, interrupting my reverie. “You never know what is coming around the next corner. I often had to remind Meriwether and William of the same thing.”