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For a Contest, MIT Steers Data Crunchers Into Boston Traffic

Four decades ago, two teenagers, Bill Gates and Paul Allen, started Traf-O-Data, a company that collected and processed traffic-count data to be used by cities’ traffic engineers for tasks like timing stop lights and maintaining roads.

The venture was short-lived—the childhood friends would go on to found the Microsoft Corporation—but now a new generation of programmers is being asked to develop data-driven solutions for transportation problems.

The Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in collaboration with the City of Boston, started a contest this week to examine the demand for taxicabs as well as their traffic flow. Working with a variety of data sets, participants will attempt to predict the times of day and the parts of the city with the most demand, while also proposing solutions to problems such as how best to connect cab rides with public-transportation options, according to a news release.

The challenge is part of the Big Data Initiative at the lab, which was established in May 2012. The competition is the first of several meant to inspire the use of data in solving problems.

“Working with our partners, the Big Data challenges will address real-world issues in different areas such as transportation, urban planning, health, finance, and education,” said Elizabeth Bruce, executive director of the big-data project, in a written statement. “The goal is to provide the MIT community, in particular students, with new and unique opportunities to show how data can make a difference.”

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