Mobile phones, a device many motorists carry with them while commuting, could be the solution to one of Malta’s biggest challenges – traffic.

According to research by Maurice Saliba, mobile data can help detect and predict traffic patterns for better management, something that the authorities have yet to explore.

Even when not in use, a mobile phone is constantly sending signals to the hundreds of radio antennas spread out across the island.

The frequency of these signals helped Mr Saliba to understand how many people use which routes – and at what time – to travel between home and work.

Most people switch to WiFi networks when they arrive home or at their workplace, meaning that most use their mobile data while commuting, allowing for a clearer picture of their commute.

Mr Saliba carried out the research for his postgraduate studies, and recently published a paper called Vehicular traffic flow intensity detection and prediction through mobile data usage, together with Charlie Abela and Colin Layfield from the Department of Artificial Intelligence.

Mobile data connections recorded at 6am. Swipe from the right side of the image to compare data to one hour later, at 7am. 

The method developed by Mr Saliba, who manages GO’s service provisioning and support systems, allowed him to understand people’s preferred route to get to work, trip delays and hotspots.

He could also use the data to predict traffic flow in the afternoons, which usually reflects that of the morning.

The novelty with Mr Saliba’s work is that he focused on data usage, rather than voice calls, which is what is usually used in most cases abroad. The data was anonymised and audited, meaning there can be no traceability and therefore no infringement of data protection.

The most commuted road is Aldo Moro in Marsa

“The method is most effective when it comes to traffic demand, rather than congestion, and needs very little manpower to be applied by the authorities. “It would be especially handy when transport authorities need to change road infrastructure, as they can create alternative routes and the data collected through mobile usage would provide predicted flows.”

Using such methods would require incentivising telecom providers to share their data, however, the possibilities were endless.

The authorities would even be able to know how many tourists were on the road compared to residents, and also when Gozitans cross back to the island after heading to Malta for work.

Know your traffic:

On weekends, traffic peaks around noon and late in the evening.

After 6pm trip delays are higher on Sundays than on Saturdays. On Sundays, an average trip delay is 12 minutes while on Saturdays expected delays are eight minutes long.

During the week, the average morning trip delay steadily rises between 6am and 7am.

The most commuted road is Aldo Moro in Marsa, followed by Tal-Balal road in San Ġwann and the roundabout that leads to Mikiel Anton Vassalli Road in St Julian’s.

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