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GDOT selected Forsyth County for the site of a 'groundbreaking' tech challenge - here's why
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Drivers navigate through downtown Cumming on Friday, Aug. 16, 2019. - photo by Brian Paglia

The Georgia Department of Transportation has a trove of data collected from connected vehicles, traffic signals and various sensors placed on or near roadways around the state. The trick for the government agency has been what to do with it.

To figure that out, GDOT will hold a smart vehicle technology challenge in Forsyth County in what local officials are calling a “groundbreaking” event for the area that could put it “on the map.”

The event, called “Talking Traffic Lights,” will invite companies in the fields of emerging technology to interpret GDOT’s data and develop ideas that could improve the mobility and safety of Georgia’s transportation system.

Slated for November or December, the event will be held at Digital Ignition, the tech incubator recently rebooted by the Cumming-Forsyth County Chamber of Commerce, in partnership with Forward Forsyth, an entity of local civic and community stakeholders. Companies that are selected to participate will have access to the data for three days to interpret and develop applications. The winner will receive $10,000.

“Let’s leverage the tech sector, let’s leverage the computer science sectors, to take our data and do something really neat with it,” said Andrew Heath, a state traffic engineer with GDOT. “Build an app, build a solution that can help GDOT do our job better.”

The data has been collected from a variety of sources, Heath said. Some of the data comes from GDOT’s connected vehicle pilot program that is currently comprised of traffic signals at 54 intersections on Peachtree Road in Buckhead and Ponce de Leon Avenue. The traffic signals are equipped with IoT technology to communicate with smart devices inside vehicles. Some of the data comes from almost 7,000 traffic signals around the state connected to GDOT’s management center along with sensors on the side of roadways that monitor traffic density, speed and volume.

GDOT has already used the data to develop applications, Heath said. Account Bound allows a car to communicate with an upcoming traffic signal to know when it’s about to turn from red to green. Green Speed can notify a driver of the minimum speed required to make it through a green light at an upcoming traffic signal. GDOT has also developed an application to warn about approaching pedestrians.

But the data has only been seen by GDOT and the academic world. “Talking Traffic Lights” will be the first time that the data will be made available to the public, albeit in a limited fashion.

“This is very progressive,” said Scott Evans, senior project manager-technology with the chamber.

Evans and Joanne Sanders, with EWISE Communications, started courting GDOT since last October, they said. Evans pitched them on the idea of a technology challenge event and that Forsyth County was the place to hold it. The area has one of the highest concentrations of software developers and programmers in the state, while Digital Ignition is a hub for companies working in the fields of emerging technology like artificial intelligence, blockchain and internet of things (IoT).

“Between the caliber of Digital Ignition and the quality that [GDOT is] looking for, that was a great fit,” Sanders said.

Heath added, “It was easy for us to say, ‘Absolutely.’”

Evans expects the event to bring a new level of notoriety for Forsyth County on a national and even international scale.

“Our five-year economic development plan is to recruit tech companies,” Evans said. “What better opportunity to advertise yourself than inviting those kinds of companies to come here once or twice a year working on these types of challenges?”

Evans added, “Recognizing that we have the talent here to do an international event in partnership with a state agency? Yeah, that puts us on the map, not just in the Atlanta area, but internationally.”

Heath said GDOT has plans to broaden the use IoT technology and traffic signals in the near future. The agency is working to connect around 1,700 locations around metro Atlanta, Heath said, including on Forsyth County portions of Peachtree Parkway and State Route 9.

GDOT is also working on new applications from its vast data set. One, Heath said, would prioritize traffic signals for mass transit buses.

But GDOT wants more ideas to come from its data set.

The next one could come from Forsyth County.

“If you buy a car in 2-3 years, and your cars are communicating to each other, that software very likely has a chance of having been created at Digital Ignition the first weekend of November,” Evans said.