Fletcher: Hitting the information highway

I’ve driven from one end of this province to the other more times than I can count.

By the time you read this I should be in Vanderhoof, the geographical centre of B.C., to visit relatives.

Born in the Okanagan, raised in the Peace country and working for 20 years in Metro Vancouver, I’ve driven from one end of the province to the other more times than I can count.

A similar trip last year began just as a huge mudslide was cleared near Chilliwack. Other drives have featured mid-summer hail piled 10 centimetres deep on the Coquihalla, a near miss between two moose in the Pine Pass, plus the usual blizzards and hundreds of traffic jams for construction, accidents and growing urban volume delays.

This time I’ve got a new tool on board, the mobile version of DriveBC.ca on my BlackBerry. Launched two years, ago, the mobile site has taken off with the surging popularity of smartphones.

In the past year, DriveBC’s online traffic averaged 1.2 million visits a month, about half to the five-year-old desktop site and half from mobile users. It’s by far the most popular B.C. government website.

I asked DriveBC technical leader Nainesh Agarwal for these stats, and he said even he was surprised by the surge in mobile traffic in recent months. But trying out the mobile site, it’s easy to see the appeal.

With a few clicks, the phone displays incident reports and web camera images for my chosen route. Webcams have been added steadily all over the province, and now watch 18 key locations on Vancouver Island, 93 in the Lower Mainland, 73 in the Southern Interior, 35 in the North and 13 at Canada-U.S. border crossings. At a glance, you can check anything from the traffic at the Lions Gate Bridge to the lineup for the Skidegate ferry on Haida Gwaii.

Most pictures update every two minutes, offering a real-time look at traffic, weather and road conditions. A recent addition is “replay the day,” which shows the last 24 hours of pictures in a few seconds.

Another new feature is an email alert that can be customized. You can subscribe to a particular region or highway and receive notices as soon as they are posted to the DriveBC network. And of course there is an @drivebc Twitter feed, where between 6:30 a.m. and midnight, staff update conditions and respond to inquiries. (Major events are automatically tweeted overnight.)

Verified reports are fed from highways staff and contractors all over the province and co-ordinated through the provincial highways condition centre in the Lower Mainland. It’s become a primary source of information for radio and TV traffic and news reporters around B.C.

The mobile service now has an option for drivers to report new problems they encounter. After determining your smartphone’s location, the site displays the name and phone number of the local maintenance contractor who can take the report.

For those who haven’t joined the smartphone era, there is an old-fashioned option. Dialing 5-1-1 anywhere in the province gives access to a toll-free line that connects to recorded DriveBC messages.

Agarwal said use of that service has been declining as phones with web access become more popular. The 5-1-1 service also requires you to use the keypad to select your route from a numerical list, so drivers would have to pull over rather than breach the new restrictions on using handheld devices while driving.

The 5-1-1 system still gets surges of heavy use during major events like the recent flooding. The plan is to upgrade the system to allow voice recognition, so drivers can use headsets to get updates on the move.

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