Sensors can measure air quality, traffic congestion, and other aspects of urban environments. The fine-grained diagnostic information they provide could help urban managers to monitor a city’s health. Recently, a `drive-by’ paradigm has been proposed in which sensors are deployed on third-party vehicles, enabling wide coverage at low cost} Research on drive-by sensing has mostly focused on sensor engineering, but a key question remains unexplored: How many vehicles would be required to adequately scan a city? Here, we address this question by analyzing the sensing power of a taxi fleet. Taxis, being numerous in cities and typically equipped with some sensing technology (e.g. GPS), are natural hosts for the sensors. Our strategy is to view drive-by sensing as a spreading process, in which the area of sensed terrain expands as sensor-equipped taxis diffuse through a city’s streets. In tandem with a simple model for the movements of the taxis, this analogy lets us analytically determine the fraction of a city’s street network sensed by a fleet of taxis during a day. Our results agree with taxi data obtained from nine major cities, and reveal that a remarkably small number of taxis can scan a large number of streets. This finding appears to be universal, indicating its applicability to cities beyond those analyzed here. Moreover, because taxi motions combine randomness and regularity (passengers’ destinations being random, but the routes to them being deterministic), the spreading properties of taxi fleets are unusual; in stark contrast to random walks, the stationary densities of our taxi model obey Zipf’s law, consistent with the empirical taxi data. Our results have direct utility for town councilors, smart-city designers, and other urban decision makers.
Quantifying the sensing power of crowd-sourced vehicle fleets
Kevin P. O’Keeffe, Amin Anjomshoaa, Steven H. Strogatz, Paolo Santi, Carlo Ratti