How Twitter gets drivers through the gridlocked streets of Caracas

The streets of Caracas are crammed with three times as many cars as they can handle. And why not? Gas is cheaper in Venezuela than anywhere else on Earth. The consequence, of course, is nasty traffic, made only worse by potholes, police checkpoints and other impediments to smooth vehicular movement.

The situation is one that apparently has no solution on the drawing board. Yet, that doesn't mean drivers must suffer without any relief at all. Thanks to social media tools, according to a Bloomberg News report, smartphone-toting drivers have been participating in an emerging answer to Venezuela's gridlock nightmare.

Enter Trafico -- well, @Trafico, a Twitter user who broadcasts traffic tips tweeted by Caracas drivers. With 9,676 followers, Trafico already has a strong presence, particularly for such a local, specialized group. And, it's growing rapidly. The only proof you need of Trafico's utility is that its user base is expanding 10% a week. Word is spreading, drivers are following and information is being used. The service has issued 23,497 tweets since it was launched in 2007.

As usual, the mother of invention continues to be necessity. Radio reports in Caracas don't offer much help. There's only one helicopter reporter, and the updates come every half-hour. By the time you find out from the air how bad traffic is, you may have been sitting in it for 29 minutes. Google (GOOG) falls short with its Google Maps solution because live options for tracking traffic aren't available. GPS systems simply don't work in the region.

Spend It or Lose It

With Trafico, social media, crowdsourcing and several other buzzwords come together in a city of 3.2 million with 1.3 million registered vehicles. It delivers a lesson in how people armed with a free microblogging service can look out for each other, especially with roads designed to hold only 30% of this volume. The service's profound success has led to imitators, including @TraficoCCS, with just over 3,000 followers. In Costa Rica, a similar endeavor boasts more than 1,000 followers.

Twitter can't claim sole credit for the success of Trafico. Even Research in Motion (RIMM), maker of the BlackBerry devices so popular in Venezuela, owes a nod to the country's economic climate. Low interest rates and currency controls have contributed to high inflation in Venezuela, which makes consumer spending more attractive than saving for a rainy day. Bolivars can be spent now, or they can be left in the bank to depreciate. As a result, on a per capita basis smartphones are more popular in Venezuela than in Europe.

In Venezuela, cars are also seen as a way to protect against inflation, especially if they're bought used. Import restrictions and reduced dollar allocations for paying foreign suppliers led new vehicle sales to fall 57% in October, which has increased demand for cars with some miles on them already. Public transportation projects have been put on hold because of the drop in oil revenue over the past year, which has pushed auto prices higher as well.

Tweeting While Driving

An inflation rate of 29%, a drop in oil prices of 50% and a currency whose value is plummeting make used cars and smartphones great places to park some cash. What this creates is the potential for lots of traffic -- and access to a solution. Via their smartphones, drivers can tweet their observations on road conditions, which @Trafico is happy to amplify.

Doubtless, tweeting while driving seems like a formula for disaster. For now, slow average speeds in Caracas -- between seven and nine miles per hour, makes the habit not so lethal. If Trafico works well enough, though, it may render itself useless. As traffic opens up, drivers will have to turn their attention back to the road.

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