/ Technology, Travel & Leisure

Can live data make going out less stressful?

beat the crowds

I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty impatient when it comes to queuing and waiting to be served.

I would rather go to McDonald’s than wait 30 minutes for a table at a fancy restaurant and will leave a bar if I have to queue for an eternity to get served.

In fact, I did just that a couple of weeks ago when I was heading to see a play with some friends and decided to grab a bite at a place close by that my veggie friend liked.

We got there, only to discover the place was packed and had a 45-minute wait.

We then had to scurry around for the next 20 minutes trying to find somewhere else nearby that looked decent, served good veggie food and wouldn’t make us late for the play.

Real-time data

What we really needed was something to tell us where to head that didn’t have a queue.

That’s why I was really excited by Google’s latest announcement about adding real-time data to Google Maps and search to show you live, up-to-date info on how busy a coffee shop, bar, restaurant or store is.

What’s even more interesting is that it will also tell you how long people usually spend in a place, so if you really, really want to go somewhere, you can plan your time around it.

I think Google has always listed popular hours, but I’ve often questioned the reliability of it. However, this new feature could prove more accurate, as it will use info based on real-time, aggregated, anonymous location history data.

The wider world

I’m really interested in real-time data and how we can use it to make our lives a little bit easier.

I know some town councils around the UK are using it to show you live car space availability in town centres and parking garages. And I’d think it would be especially useful to find out when shops are at their busiest when I’m Christmas/sales shopping.

So, have you come across places using live data? Is it something you’d use?


Well, as long as you’re happy to feed Google even more data about your dining, shopping and living habits, then that’s fine. And there’s been an urgent need for the supermarket equivalent of a SatNav for some time. Theme Parks are now providing apps which claim to show the queueing times at popular rides, but as for whether these make life less stressful I’m not sure. In fact, it’s possible their very use might add to the stress.

Imagine you’re looking for a parking space in Ludlow, with your wife reading the app. The converstaion might go something like this:

“Use the app, Beryl; it’ll show us the next free space.
“I am using it, Tom, but it’s saying there’s an update. Shall I..”:
“God, no; we need the parking space first.”
“All right, all right no need for that attitude. How d’you get rid of the message?”
“Press Alt/Cntrl/Go and hold for two seconds.”
“Okay. Er – it’s now saying something else.”
“How long did you hold it for?”
“Two seconds – like you said.”
“You must have held it for longer. ”
“Well, you do it, then if you’re so clever..”
“Sorry; sorry – it’s just that we have to be at the restaurant by…”
“Ooh – it’s cleared! I can see the list of parking spaces. Wait – turn left NOW!”
“What – now?”
“Yes – oh, never mind, you’ve missed that one, but there’s another in 200 yards. ”
“Okay – just let me know when to turn…”
“NOW – NOW! Not left – RIGHT!”
“But you never said…”
“Never mind, it’s just gone . Ooh! Another one – it’s close. Turn RIGHT!”
“Okay. How far now?”
“It’s on the left – just ahead.”
“Where? I can’t see anything.”
“We’re almost on it. Use you eyes – it has to be here somewhere!”
“There’s nothing…”
“We’re there! It’s here – look around!”
“Nothing at all – we’re in a one way street with no parking allowed.”
“Er – what does that funny shape mean?”
“What funny shape?”
“The one that looks a bit like a coal mine…”
“That means it’s UNDERGROUND! Of course we’re here – we’re literally on top of it!”
“If you’re going to be like that you can find it yourself.”
“Useless ******* ****** *** ******** app. I hate them, and I hate Ludlow and I hate – oh, Officer; sorry – I didn’t see you standing there. Yes – of course, you’re quite right. I shouldn’t simply have stopped. Yes, and the language was uncalled for. I’m very sorry. But it’s this app…”

Ian and Beryl Go Out, an understated comedy gem in six episodes, along the lines of Peter Kay’s Car Share. Episode One, Parking, Phone apps and the Police.

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The anxieties of the modern consumer never cease to amaze me.

Real time off-street parking capacity signs have been around in many cities for decades. They might not be super state-of-the-art digital displays but they do the job. Perhaps London is starting to catch up at last.

Any restaurant worthy of your custom will take a booking over the phone. Some will even take a booking using one of the numerous Apps now appearing, if you don’t like human-to-human interaction. Unlike McDonald’s, where there can be a 10 minute wait not only to get served, but to find a table that doesn’t required self-service cleaning.

Just for the record, I have an Android smart phone and use its features all the time, but in the scenario you describe – seeing a play with a friend and wanting a good veggie restaurant – what is wrong will a little planning ahead and using the phone for its primary purpose?

I’d book a restaurant in advance and either take a taxi or, better still, publlc transport for the last part of the journey and save polluting. The only way we will reduce pollution in our towns and cities is, regrettably, to stop using fossil-fuelled personal transport except for those who must, particularly at peak times. Who will be brave enough to instigate this and provide out-of-town parking with a decent bus service at affordable prices.

Live data might provide pollution levels and only allow cars into town when they are at safe level perhaps?

Your closing suggestion: “only allow cars into town when they [pollution levels] are at [a] safe level” is interesting, but probably wouldn’t be feasible for a real time application.

Pollution levels are not directly correlated with the amount of traffic. There are other sources of pollution and pollution varies according to the weather – winds, temperature inversions, etc. We could have a scenario where all new traffic is shut off, but pollution levels continue to rise beyond the “safe” level (whatever that means), and could take hours or even days to disperse.

And what happens to all those cars waiting to enter the low pollution zone? Presumably some sit, idling their engines and adding to the surrounding pollution levels.

However, you have reminded me that a traffic control measure I have long dreamed of, is finally possible with the aid of modern technology. Namely, drivers who want to use Motorways, must now pre-book their journeys. This is much like a timed ticket to visit a popular attraction.

Want to travel from London to Birmingham via the M40? You must sign in with your registration and book a travel slot. If your route is already fully booked, you will be offered alternative times and dates. Having been given a time slot of, say, 3 hours to complete your journey, you may not enter the Motorway network before your allotted time slot and must leave before the end.

Whilst essentially keeping Motorways free to use (although I don’t personally see a problem with the French system of charging), there would be big penalties for using the system without a reservation, and similar penalties for those who book slots and don’t use them, to prevent “hoarding”. Discuss …

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So every Motorway entry and exit point would need a monitoring device to continuously recalibrate the available capacity by reference to average speed indications, and all entry points would need to have an escape lane and some parking space for vehicles which have arrived too early or too late for their pre-booked slot, or which have arrived without a pre-booked slot. Might be better to stop registering additional vehicles above a calculated national system capacity [or would that be seen as the forerunner to a devious way of controlling immigration?].

I suppose every toilet would have a keypad on which the user has to enter a code and function indicator {No. 1, No.2, etc], or perhaps their contactless card could do it for them, and a room full of data analysts would then pore over the details and issue a monthly statistical report. Last night I had my first Brussels sprouts of the festive season; this could be pre-programmed into the system to add a weighting to the national statistics. Appropriate data would be transmitted to sewage systems to activate additional screening and digestion processes and bring reserve capacity on stream. The methane bottling plant could also be placed on high alert.

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That wouldn’t work in this country, Duncan – some people do not pull the chain, others do a double flush for everything, and most of our houses are so small several people have to use the same toilet so it would be impossible to produce useful data analysis. If I were a professional burglar I think I would just ring the doorbell in the first instance and take it from there. Of course, once they get inside they might discover that the resident is in the toilet with their mobile phone at the ready to call the police.

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There’s one car parking space left. An app flags it to hundreds of people. What does that solve?

The next step will be that after flagging it to hundreds of people, one of them gets to to pre-book it (using their phone while driving) – such that someone who is right next to the parking spot can’t use it because someone a mile away has already pre-booked it.

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The point about live data is that it will show you (where technically possible) both demand and supply.

“There are 972 parking spaces in Zone 3. There are 3 available spaces. There are 271 drivers look for a space.”

“There are 214 parking spaces in Zone 1. There are 42 available spaces. There are 14 drivers looking for a space.”

Practical logic tells us to head for Zone 1.

Out of interest, how do you know how many cars are looking for parking spaces, particularly if they are not interrogating the system or don’t have smart phones. What they are doing though, in cruising around trying to find somewhere to park, is creating emissions. Out-of-town car parks and shuttle buses might be better for peoples health, and leave in-town parking for the essential users.

This entire idea (and its problems) has been comprehensively explored by Asimov and Clarke, to name but two Sci Fi writers, who could see clearly where we’re heading.

@ malcolm r – I was responding to the OP’s scenario: “… after flagging it to hundreds of people … “. I assume these must be interrogating the system.

I also agree with your comment about not encouraging private vehicles into towns and cities, but there are NO essential users of in-town parking. Doctors and paramedics park in the road. Delivery drivers, similarly. Living in London or another congested city does not give anyone the right to own a car and drive or park there.

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EM2 – disabled for example are essential users. At some point we’ll have to recognise that air quality is largely down to traffic, so to improve it – reduce traffic. Live data on air quality from roadside monitors might help those with breathing difficulties decide when it is best to visit a town.

” I would rather go to McDonald’s than wait 30 minutes for a table at a fancy restaurant and will leave a bar if I have to queue for an eternity to get served.”

It would seem that most bars can keep you waiting quite a long time without you leaving,! Eternity whew!

I am a very great fan of planning and researching ahead and reckon it is a good attribute to cultivate; as is patience. That for me has meant buying property near the head of commuter lines for seats, travelling very early or late, and making reservations for important restaurant dates.

I cannot see any real benefit at a social level in real-time data. For managing crowds and traffic at a district/city level were you can utilise the information in an effective way I am a great fan.

Unstructured access to vast amounts of data I do not think will be good. We seem, as a race to be unthinking enough with small data let alone vast amounts which may lead to unintended consequences.

Em2 posits a fairly simple example of it working for parking which, with a proviso that people are registered as looking works. However let us say that some people have not registered an interest in parking and are therefore uncounted, and others believe that demand means that they should race to get there.

Of course the reason why there maybe the free spaces is because someone has backed up the traffic in the multi-story entrance, nobody has mentioned that they are repainting the white lines ……..

Another use for real time data could be monitoring your metabolism and health. Imagine the scene: an iPad Pro hooked up to your body and a graphical display to show how, where and when the food moves through the body. Ideal present for Christmas?

One place where live data could play a major role might be in hospitals. Real-time information, showing the surgeon bolting his lunch so he can make the clinic duty only an hour late, or a scene of him ankle deep in someone’s innards when he’s supposed to be in clinic might go some way to alleviating the annoyance felt by waiting patients.

DPD are the only courier service I know that uses real-time data. It’s exceptionally useful, too, showing you where the driver is at that moment, his name and an approximate time of delivery. Invaluable.

The NHS could deploy it, too, on ambulances, showing the location, speed and approximate time of arrival when your better half has ‘phoned 999 as you’re having a heart attack. And no; I’m not joking.

You might not want to know, judging by reports of ambulances being held at A&E for an hour or more before they can discharge patients into the care of the hospital. I am sure these are exceptions. The call centres are being trained to use longer more detailed questioning sessions to ensure those who desperately need an ambulance are prioritised. However we must do something to get hospitals in shape to do their job properly, and to get ex-patients out who are blocking beds. I wonder whether we should remove some managers and use the money to replace them with front line staff (or retrain them to fulfill a medical role). Do we expect too much for free on the NHS – including free prescriptions for most people when many could afford to pay?

The major weakness lies in the intersection between ambulance and hospital. The patient has to remain in the ambulance (engine running to keep the patient warm…) until the hospital can take over. What that does is take an ambulance unit off the road for the length of time needed – often more than three hours.

Solutions: during the pressure months build temporary triage wards. Mobile classroom-type units could be used, and the NHS would have to employ more Drs and Nurses, but at the end of the day ambulances need to be on the road.

I’m half-way through writing up my own experience almost a year ago, and it proved very illuminating. In the A&E ward, when I entered on a trolley, there was one self-administered overdose, one person whose leg hurt, two with indigestion and one – me – with an actual heart attack. The big problem there is that of both education and those who actively attempt to kill themselves – either by overdosing or heavy smoking and drinking. But what’s the solution?

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There are no easy solutions for a society that purports to be caring.

Hello, Duncan – I had replied to your comment from yesterday, but you might not have seen it/ I can’t see anything that’s could be blocking you from sharing URLs. I did, however, insert a space between the URL and the hyphens you had in your comment and that generated the hyperlink.

I know that we’ve ventured into discussing a very serious issue here, and while I’m not opposed to such a discussion, this isn’t necessarily the right place to be having it. So, in the interests of keeping the conversation on-topic it would be very much appreciated if we could go back to discussing live data and whether or not it could improve your consumer experience.

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Thanks, Duncan. Please do share a screen grab of what you’re seeing if you’re still having problems – you can email me at conversation.comments@which.co.uk

Indeed that is useful help for a specific purpose when you are talking of important matters such as assisting the NHS. None of this technology is completely new in terms of tracking ambulances etc.

We could also look at RFID tagging of items in hospital , and indeed patients, and of medical items. The point is that the savings do not go into anyone’s pocket so there is little in the way of a vested interest driving the introduction of technologies.

It would be good if some charity was scoping this out as there are many commercial companies promising benefits but we need independent research.