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Author: 
Molouk Y. Ba-Isa I Arab News
Publication Date: 
Tue, 2009-10-20 03:00

Zahmaola (www.zahmaola.com) is a website that is quickly gaining a huge following. Meaning “Crowded-or-Not,” the website endeavors to give commuters some idea of the traffic conditions on the King Fahd Causeway between Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, in both directions. At standard peak times it can take more than four hours to make the 28-kilometer journey, so it’s important to be prepared. During holidays or at times that systems on the Causeway go down, travel times have been 12 hours or longer.

Until now, there has been no way to find out how terrible the situation really is on the route until a commuter is actually stuck in traffic. U-turns on the bridge are blocked, so there is no going back until the midpoint once a vehicle has started the journey. Under some dire conditions, it has taken four hours just to reach the first u-turn. A sign before the entrance to the Causeway indicates only high, medium or low traffic on the roadway. Unfortunately, it doesn’t give a crossing time and the sign must be changed manually, so there is often a delay in relaying information about true conditions on the bridge.

Mohammad Al-Fares, founder of Bluemeel, the Saudi company behind Zahmaola, explained that the concept underlying the website is very simple, but there were many obstacles to overcome in getting the service running.

“The project started in April 2008,” Al-Fares said. “We thought about putting cameras and sensors on the Causeway but it was impossible because the King Fahd Causeway Authority wouldn’t agree to such an arrangement. We launched the site initially as a pilot, wanting to provide only a few people with access to the information. Unfortunately, due to our lack of knowledge about online functionalities, the site became visible to everyone. At that time we had someone stationed at the midpoint of the Causeway, monitoring traffic eight hours a day. We tested our system over a two and a half month period and found that the results were perfect and the Web service was useful. But it was costly to keep someone out there all day, and we couldn’t get an official approval from the Causeway Authority to have someone stationed at the central island. We realized that another way must be found to gain the information.”

After the test phase, the website was no longer updated. But since the old information was still visible, people began to learn about the project. Al-Fares received e-mail from companies and individuals trying to gain access to the site. Realizing that enthusiasm for the service was building but that people didn’t understand that the project wasn’t functional yet, the Bluemeel team took the site down and advised people to check back in a few months.

For ten months the Bluemeel team considered how they could get the information they needed for Zahmaola. Eventually, they made many contacts among businesses and individuals who regularly traveled across the Causeway. These individuals agreed to send to Bluemeel by SMS the information concerning their real times in clearing the Causeway. The exact explanation for how the Causeway crossing time is derived is posted at the website.

“Using the information provided by people we know is important. But we also realized that there are many people that we don’t know who are crossing the Causeway,” remarked Al-Fares. “We use the power of social networking to ask those people to help us by texting their crossing time to a dedicated mobile number. We compare all the incoming times and discard the few that are too bizarre. We also telephone people we know who are on the Causeway to confirm the information. More data gives us a better view of the situation on the Causeway minute to minute.”

Soon, Bluemeel plans to move away from relying on the SMS messaging system for obtaining the crossing times. They are currently consulting an Indian firm that will be able to use its technology to provide the traffic status by analyzing the time it takes for a selected mobile telephone signal to move between the communication towers on the Causeway. Al-Fares said that about ten signals will be monitored at ten minute intervals so that there is redundancy in the information provided. The mobile signals are used in a completely anonymous fashion, with nothing taken from the signal. The technology has already been implemented effectively for many purposes in other locations worldwide. Bluemeel is in negotiations with local mobile operators to conclude an agreement to allow this plan to move forward.

“Although the site was launched officially for Eid, the service actually became available in beta about three months ago. Since that time we’ve had about 140,000 users total. The highest number of users we’ve had in a single day was about 3,000,” Al-Fares said. “It’s apparent that the service is becoming more and more popular. For the near future, we are planning to implement an SMS feature which would allow people to get the current traffic status sent to their mobile phones. Next, we want to build applications that would enable the service to work with Nokia and iPhone. We are hopeful that the future will be a good one for the Zahmaola project and our company.”

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