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Trapster — A source in search of a crowd


A driver, represented by the red dot with concentric arcs pointing ahead of him, approaches an area where a Trapster user has electronically “tagged” the location of a possible speed trap, represented by the icon of an officer holding a radar gun.

Image courtesy of Trapster

Editor’s Note: About half of the states in the Union have some form of prohibition against texting while driving. Nearly all those states also have services which monitor traffic tie-ups, accidents, road closures, and other such calamities. How do people in their cars get that information about road conditions? Text messages to their mobile phones, of course. Nobody ever said this stuff should make any logical sense.

Let’s get this out of the way right up front: The notion that someone can use an application called Trapster on their iPhone, Palm Pre, Blackberry, HTC Hero, or other such phone to watch the real-time movements of a police car (like some sort of “LoJack that monitors cops”) is science fiction.

Let’s also get this out of the way: Ever since the invention of the CB radio, speeders have been using wireless technology to alert fellow speeders that police officers have a speed trap set up someplace. Heck, ever since the invention of headlights, drivers have been giving their counterparts in the oncoming lane a “Paul Revere” that a trap is around the next bend. Just this year, Cobra Electronics introduced a new line of radar detectors that includes a “regularly-updated database of red light and speed cameras.”

Is it technically possible for a hacker to illicitly infiltrate into something like COPsync — which does track the movement of police vehicles — and distribute that information to bad actors on the Internet or on their mobile devices? Sure.

It’s also highly illegal and relatively improbable that they’ll do so. The hacker would have to get that information from the secured central servers at a police station or dispatch center, not directly from the GPS units in those squad cars.

Okay, with those housekeeping items out of the way, let’s talk about Trapster.

Separating Fact from Fiction
Contrary to a rumor (spread far and wide) alleging that Trapster technology identifies the location of individual officers and their patrol vehicles with a yellow ring around the officer, the service cannot, does not, and, according to the company’s CEO, will not do any such thing.

Using Trapster, users can “tag” locations at which they believe they’ve seen a speed trap, creating a fixed location in the company’s database. Other users equipped with Trapster-enabled phones who subsequently approach that location are then given an audio alert.

Is this thing nefarious? You bet. Counter-productive to the interests of cops trying to nab speeders? Absolutely. Aimed at making cops less safe? Not exactly (and certainly not for the officer who is tactically sound and technologically aware).

So what the heck is Trapster, and what does it mean for police officers? When Trapster launched back in April 2008, one blogger accurately described the offering as a “social network that pinpoints speed traps and red-light cameras.” There’s more to it than that, but if you first think about the offering as a community in the model of Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace, you’ll have pretty good understanding of what the company is trying to accomplish.

Without getting too deep into mumbo jumbo discussed daily in the cafeterias at Google, Yahoo, and thousands of other little companies mentioned on Mike Arrington’s TechCrunch, we do need to have an understanding of the word “crowdsource” (A.K.A. “crowdsourcing”).

Many people trace the notion of crowdsourcing to James Surowiecki, who wrote a book called “The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations.” This book was wildly popular among Internet entrepreneurs, and entire companies were built around the simple notion of distributed problem-solving. There are arguments that it could go much further back in history than Surowiecki, but for our purposes, let’s stay relatively current.

The most successful instance of an enterprise based entirely on crowdsourcing is Wikipedia. Although Wikipedia is an interesting and unusual case because it has astonishing consumer “value” while having no official market “valuation” (at least in the San Hill Road or Wall Street sense of the word), it provides an instructive example.

When it began, Wikipedia had a relatively low number of users, and in many cases the information on it was somewhat suspect. In some cases the information on it was downright wrong. As the community of people contributing to Wikipedia skyrocketed (new users who were not only adding new entries on their particular topics of interest, but also making corrections to entries they found to be incorrect) the inherent value of Wikipedia went through the roof.

Based on this, we can set a rule: Any enterprise based on crowdsourcing which efficiently and quickly acquires a crowd can provide incredible value. Conversely, any enterprise based on crowdsourcing that fails to attract a crowd ceases to exist very, very quickly. The Internet is littered with dead URLs for companies that fit this description.

Okay, back to Trapster. They want to get a crowd. They want people to download their application to their mobile phones. They want users in large numbers. End of story.

Well, at least end of Chapter One. In homage to Paul Harvey, for “the rest of the story” we talked with Trapster CEO Pete Tenereillo.

Schools of Fish
“As a businessman, I don’t care whether my users are reporting speed traps or bubble gum wrappers, my business model is that eventually we’ll put in location-based ads, and we have a lot of car companies that want to buy generic data from us. Not email addresses or phone numbers or people’s names. That kind of information isn’t actually worth that much anymore. The kind of information the car companies want to buy is stuff like traffic information.”

For example, let’s say that the Trapster servers, which can “see” the GPS location all of the users who have downloaded the Trapster application and have it running on their phones, observes that a single iPhone owner is moving along at 25 miles an hour on the I-5 — the main North-South artery on the West Coast. That presents an interesting data point.

Now, let’s say we have that same kind of data from a hundred, a thousand, maybe even ten thousand cars up and down the I-5. Now we begin to have some very useful information about traffic throughout California, Oregon, and Washington. Now, figure that database also includes I-95, I-80, I-40, I-30, and countless state roads and highways.

Getting the picture? That’s a lot of very, very valuable information.

“All I have to do to execute on that — all I have to do to get that information — is to get people to leave this application on as they’re driving. There are an awful lot of companies out there trying to get people to report traffic data. The problem is, most people don’t do that. People are not fundamentally benevolent like that. What I find is that people are inherently lazy and not particularly interested in helping each other, unless they connect with something.”

One thing lots of people seem to connect to (remember the abovementioned CB radios and headlights) is telling other drivers about speed traps. Effectively, that’s Tenereillo’s “hook” to get users to download and use his application.

Tenereillo says that he’s not trying to make the roads — or the world, for that matter — a more unsafe place. In fact, he says he’s got plans to add elements to the service aimed directly at helping police and other first responders to prevent loss of life and property.

For example, the California Highway Patrol asked Camarillo and his team at Trapster to give users the ability to report wildfires they see on the side of the road. That capability will be built into the next version of the Trapster product.

“We’re also going to add the ability to report road-kill, which was a problem that we were told about by some officers in Colorado. Their point was that if you hit a buck when he’s standing, it’s a terrible thing for your car, but the animal is probably going to go over the car and you’ll be okay. If you hit a buck that’s already dead on the road, the accident could kill you. So we put that in the next version. We also heard from a lot of officers that they wanted to give people the ability to find and get directions to the nearest police and fire stations. We think that lots of people actually want to go to the police not away from them if they need help,” Camarillo says.

Remember, what matters most to Camarillo, and most directly affects the future of his company, is attracting and keeping avid users — the crowd.

Comparisons are Odious
About one and a half years after its launch, Trapster has about 2.5 million users. While not an insignificant number, it’s also not nearly the “critical mass” the company needs for its crowdsource-based offering to be truly effective. For comparative purposes, let’s look at Napster, the free online file sharing service operated in the go-go Internet days a decade ago, which had a user base that peaked out at 26.5 million. That was in the neighborhood of eighteen months after it first became available, and just three months before it was shut down by court order in July 2001.

At roughly the same times in the “lifespan” of the two companies, Napster had more than ten times the number of users as Trapster has today.

While we’re comparing Napster and Trapster (beyond the obvious — their names), let’s look at where Napster is today, by comparison with where Camarillo says Trapster is going tomorrow. Camarillo says he will eventually sell an upgraded version of the application (he insists that he’ll still have a free one). While Napster’s free offering is long gone, in its present incarnation the company offers a for-pay music download service. In that for-pay model, Napster now has fewer than one million users, according to company a company spokesperson who talked with Police1 for this story. An interesting aside: the Napster spokesperson with whom we spoke just so happens to be a Trapster user. Funny how the tech world works, isn’t it?

Adding users at a reported rate of 50K per month will help Trapster get bigger, there’s no question about that, but there are numerous other services vying for those users. Further, there is a relatively limited universe of available speeders, who also have smart-phones, who also would download an application to their phone, who also would use the system with at a frequency that would achieve true critical mass Camarillo needs.

Look at it this way: Google could create a similar application tomorrow and dwarf Trapster’s numbers in a week or two, merely because Google is one of the most well-known and well-used things on the Internet (and on myriad mobile devices on every cellular network in America).

Will Trapster get crushed under the weight of The Goog? Probably not. There will almost certainly be a very nice business for Camarillo and his colleagues to sell to an avid group of hard-core fans.

Is Google going to buy Trapster? Perhaps, but probably not — it doesn’t have to.

Making the World a Safer Place
Camarillo says he’s not interested in making the work of police officers harder. In fact, he says he’d like to make the world a safer place. He points to the fact that he tries at every opportunity to talk with cops.

“I’ve been contacted by a lot of police officers, and when police officers contact me, especially if they give me their phone number, I try to personally call them on the phone,” he says. “We get up to 3,000 emails a day in our comment box, but so we get a whole lot of various emails, but for those people out there trying to make the roads safer place, especially when they wonder if I’m making it more dangerous for them, that’s when I pretty much say, ‘drop everything, let’s call this person right now.’ Now, of course I can’t spend the entire day making these calls, but I make as many of those calls as possible.”

Camarillo says he wants police officers to tell him — in the same way that California Highway Patrol and Colorado State Police have done — what he can add to the Trapster offering that will make the roads safer.

So go ahead and add your comments and suggestions below, it’s pretty certain that Camarillo and the folks at Trapster will be watching this space.

Doug Wyllie writes police training content on a wide range of topics and trends affecting the law enforcement community. Doug was a co-founder of the Policing Matters podcast and a longtime co-host of the program.