The Google Traffic Metaphor

Guy M. Burgess
Heidi Burgess

June, 2017




This video compares the Google "Traffic App" and other traffic management approaches to the way one might deal with conflict taking a complexity-oriented approach.  You can map conflicts--just as google maps cities--and show "trouble spots," just as google shows traffic problems.  You can "adopt a problem," just as people or companies "adopt a highway" in the U.S. You can get people to police themselves, just as "friends don't let friends drive drunk," you can stop friends and associates from making stupid conflict mistakes as well.  The parallels are extensive...because both conflicts and traffic...are complex systems.

Full Transcript:

Includes minor editing to increase readability.

This is Guy Burgess. I wanted to follow up on my last discussion of the scale-up problem and explain what I meant by the Google Traffic, or the traffic system metaphor, as a way of thinking about a complexity-oriented approach--scaling up the field's efforts to really operate at the enormous scale that conflicts involving millions of people require.

So we start with the metaphor of the traffic system. Any big city, or small city for that matter, has this gigantic system that's been created that allows people to move around. What I want to do is look at some of the new  high-tech ways that we have developed for making this system work better. And then I will ask whether or not these approaches might realistically be applied to conflict problems. I think we can adapt a lot of these ideas to the conflict problem, actually.

So we'll start with the traffic system as a metaphor. And it's a complex system. The way that it operates is determined by the decisions of multitudes of independent actors driving their own cars, and trucks, as well as bicycles, and taking mass transit. The system is designed and built by professionals, like the Institute for Highway Engineers, here.

Now one of the more interesting things that's emerged in the world of traffic and how we can improve the way in which it flows around big cities is Google Traffic. What Google does, is they produce these maps. And not only that, they produce bulletins that they send out to your phone indicating that you should take a different route because there is a problem with the original route that you've chosen. They give you assessments about how much of a delay you'll have and alternative routes.

And so you've got a map here which summarizes what they're able to accomplish. You have  ittle red circles which are accidents that are reported into the system. You add red lines which are places where the traffic isn't flowing very well. And then you have a bunch of yellow exclamation marks which are all additional comments that's come in through their crowd-sourced system.

They build these maps out of a combination of data from millions of cell phones that are traveling around the city at any one time. And those cell phones radio into Google where you're going and how fast. And that's used for making these traffic maps, which are astonishingly accurate.

Then you have, of course, the official highway operation system where they know where the construction is. And they've got all of their sensors and they have reports of accidents too. And then you have the WAZE system, which is a crowdsourced system, where people can submit information about all sorts of problems. This also enables people to illuminates problems on the system, whether construction or accidents ,in time for other folks to take detours so they can avoid it.

So this is improving the operation of the traffic system, but from the perspective of narrow self-interest. You're showing people how they can get to where they want to go as quickly and efficiently as possible. Then you're also improving the aggregate system. Because you're channeling people away from bottlenecks caused by accidents or other problems.

But there are other ways in which the society as a whole contributes to the, more or less, effective functioning of the highway system. Certainly drivers that develop better driving skills are a big addition. Drive around the Colorado mountains in the winter versus in Washington, D.C. in a snowstorm and you'll discover what a difference the skill of driving in snow really makes.

Technology makes a difference too. We've got a new Subaru that has astonishing technology in terms of warning you of obstacles or that there's somebody in your blind spot.  If you drift out of your lane, it pulls you back in.  It will even stop you automatically if the traffic in front of you has stopped.

So technology helps improve the highway system, as do driving skills.  Both of these are individual characteristics.  But it also serves aggregate interests because the more people that have these, the safer and more efficient the system is for everyone else.

But the other thing that makes the highway system work better is when you start to shift over a bit from narrow self-interest into altruistic interests.  Here one good metaphor is the Adopt-A-Highway program. All over the country, a lot of the clean up of highway litter is now handled by volunteers in exchange for a minuscule amount of publicity for their good work. These people not only contribute to highway functioning by driving safely, but they give back with their time and energy too. 

And there are lots of other ways in which people make active contributions to the functioning of the highway system. For instance, friends don't let friends drive drunk. The taboos against drunk driving are now serious enough that it's a real deterrent. You have good Samaritans that come to the aid of people who are victims of accidents. Or people with flat tires. You have programs like this one to report every drunk driver or dangerous driver immediately. Again, it's sort of harnessing everybody to improve the operation of the system.

And then you also have professionals--folks who actually get paid to design and build better highways, to maintain emergency response, to figure out how traffic flows. This still doesn't produce a perfect system,  but you have, a whole series of charts like this that track increasing or decreasing aggregate safety, and travel times, and that sort of thing.

So in a sense, the way that you measure progress in the highway system is are things getting better or worse. And in a real sense, we need to do the same thing with conflict. Well, how can we do things to make the overall system slowly get better and not worse?

And of course, there are things that go wrong. There are lots of reasons in which to say that our society isn't doing a very good job of maintaining the highway system.  Highway engineer folks have given the road system in the United States a grade of D because it's not being maintained. The taxes that we pay through fuel taxes to maintain the highway system are inadequate and the roads are slowly deteriorating. So it isn't just that all this makes everything great. We also collectively fail to do what we should do. And you can think about ways to improve that.

So the question is—can we start working within the limits of the highway system metaphor and adapt these ideas to the conflict system. And that's one of the big things that we want to talk about with the MOOS project as it continues.

So one approach is an idea that goes back quite a ways—that’s conflict mapping. Paul Wehr may have been the first to come up with the idea of conflict mapping in the 1980s. The idea of conflict assessment goes back even longer than that. But one of the things that we've been exploring, and we're still at the early stages of figuring out how to do it, is to use advanced computer graphic techniques to map conflicts in ways that make what's happening- things that are going wrong, things that could be improved -a lot more visible.

And it's certainly possible to start to create something like that. It's a bit like a Google map. It could even be crowdsourced, much like the Google map, that would give people a much clearer idea of what's happening in the conflict system and how we might be able to improve it. So, and then you can ask if are there analogs to the little red dots on Google Traffic maps that say there's a problem. And we could certainly build a system that highlights conflict traps. And the thing about traps is once you see them, everybody has an interest in avoiding them.

So we could, for instance, build a system that highlights the actions of divide-and-conquer actors who are cynically trying to manipulate and exacerbate conflict for selfish political purposes. We can highlight misunderstandings, escalation and polarization dynamics, backlash, where people are rebelling against getting forced to do things they don't want to do, disrespect and dehumanization, propaganda, and so on. We can look for the posterity trap, where we solve current problems by pushing the costs off on future generations. And things like the double-cross trap. You can get a really long list of these traps.

But there are a lot of people who have an interest and say, “hey, I'm about to fall into this trap! And if I do, it's really going to hurt.” And they're going to be interested in ways to avoid doing that. So we could try to build such a system.

We can also try to sort of instill a sense in which everybody has a role to play to improve the conflict system. So instead of adopting a highway, we want people to adopt a conflict problem. And this implies a certain amount of specialization. You don't say I'm going to clean up the whole highway system. You say I'm going to work on this part. Somebody else work on other parts. So if we could get everybody to work on a little part of it, but different little parts, so there's a fair amount of coverage of the overall thing, that would be a heck of a step forward.

There's also a sense in which we can try to get people to just teach and develop do-it-yourself conflict skills. There already is a big program in conflict resolution and education. These folks are trying to bring together and disseminate these kinds of materials at the K-12 level, and at the college level. There are an enormous number of programs out there that try to help people develop more constructive conflict-handling skills. Those could all be improved and extended.

There's also an analog to the highway good Samaritans where you have-- at least one way of conceptualizing this-- is Bill Ury's third siders. Ury has identified 10 roles that good Samaritans trying to help a community torn by conflict can play to help contain, resolve, and prevent really destructive conflicts. And there are a lot of different variations of that.

There are, of course, also roles for professional contributors. Folks that actually are paid to pursue conflict roles. You can get some of those associated with the Alliance for Peacebuilding or the Association for Conflict Resolution, and many other organizations.

So the question is, how can we best build on this Google Traffic metaphor, assuming it makes sense to try to build on it. What other social learning processes are there, and maybe in sectors other than highways, that basically are ways in which the society as a whole is learning how to handle issues more effectively and constructively that we could borrow and apply to the conflict problem? I think all of this is a key to thinking at the very, very large scale that the intractable conflict problem demands.

Referenced Resources:

Paul Wehr "Conflict Mapping" Beyond Intractability Sept. 2006

The Conflict Resolution Education Connection:

William Ury. The Third Side  Penguin Books; Rev Upd edition (September 1, 2000) and the Third Side Website

Photo Credits:

Slide 2: Eastshore Freeway. By User Minesweeper on en.wikipedia. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Slide 3:  Peak hour traffic in Melbourne. Attribution: Taken by fir0002 | Canon 20D + Canon 400mm f/5.6 L (Own work). GFDL 1.2 via Wikimedia Commons.  IHE logo  IHE Logo. By Almoz06 (Own work). CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Slide 5:  Smartphone. CC0 Public Domain. . Waze taxi ride application. CC BY-SA 2.0 .  Dispatcher. Attribution: Dawid Skalec. CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Slide 6: Road construction sign. CC0 Public Domain.  Car crash. CC0 Public Domain. Detour sign. By Woodennature (Own work). CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Slide 7: Eyesight Logo from Subaru, Snowstorm By Wikih101 (Own work) CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Slide 8: Sailors conduct roadside cleanup. Attribution: By Official Navy Page from United States of America MC1 Jay C. Pugh/U.S. Navy. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Slide 9:  Friends by Peter M. CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0Reddi. – from Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities. Public Domain. Stuck car by Dan Nguyen CC-BY-NC 2.0

Slide 10: Highway construction By Jose Arukatty (Own work) CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 via Wikimedia Commons.  Cross Manhattan Arterials: from  Ambulance by CC-BY-CarImages. CC-by-SA 2.0

Slide 11: Traffic Trends.  Colorado Department of Transportation. Public Domain.  Bottom Graph. By the Federal Highway Administration. Public Domain.

Slide 12: Grade D: From the American Society of Civil Engineers’ Infrastructure Report Card.  Gas pump. By US DOE EIA (Gasoline and Diesel Fuel Update). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Slide 13  Eastshore Freeway. By User Minesweeper on en.wikipedia. CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Slide 16:  Bear trap. By Zeitlupe (Own work) CC BY-SA 3.0  via Wikimedia Commons

Slide 17:  Adopt a Highway Public Domain.